UNEP at Work                

Achim Steiner
UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, UNEP

Fourty years ago in the Swedish capital city of Stockholm history was made at a UN conference on the future of humanity and the planet. Amid rising concern over pollution, the growing loss of species and the dying of forests as a result of acid rain, governments agreed that a UN body charged with coordinating a global response to such challenges should be established.

It was the birth of UNEP and between June 1972 and the UN General Assembly that year, countries lobbied to host this new environmental body. In the end Kenya won the diplomatic debate and in doing so became the first developing country to host a UN headquarters.

Black and white photographs taken on 2 October 1973 at the inaugural celebrations show President Kenyatta, flanked by forest rangers and game wardens, waving his signature fly whisk while 43 year-old Canadian Maurice Strong, UNEPís first Executive Director, stands to attention

It was originally set up to coordinate the rest of the UN systemís activities on environmental issues and to provide the science to member states on emerging trends in environmental change.

The emphasis on science has perhaps been among UNEPís most important contributions that in turn has led to governments negotiating key global treaties to address emerging environmental crises.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer ó the protective shield that filters out dangerous levels of the sunís ultraviolet rays ó is a case in point. Without the Montreal Protocol, atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting substances could have increased tenfold by 2050 which in turn could have led to up to 20 million more cases of skin cancer and 130 million more cases of eye cataracts, not to speak of damage to human immune systems, wildlife and agriculture.

Bringing forward the science and convening treaty negotiations continues to this day.

In the late 1980s, as the world was struggling to understand the implications of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Its scientific work has become the premier risk assessment and reference work for governments on the likely trends and impacts of global warming and the IPCCís findings played a key role in the decision to establish the UN climate convention and its emission reduction treaty, the Kyoto Protocol.

At the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, UNEP was asked to spearhead a partnership in order to accelerate a global phase-out of leaded petrol. Lead is especially damaging to the brain of infants and the young.

Since then around 80 developing countries including Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa and Vanuatu have removed lead from transport fuels and only now are the enormous benefits emerging.

Scientists calculate that improvements in IQ, reductions in cardiovascular diseases, and decline in criminality are among the annual $2.4 trillion benefits linked to ridding the world of leaded petrol.

It is yet another example of how environmental measures and action also links directly to the social factors and issues of poverty, equity and livelihoods.

Since 2008, UNEP has also been championing the Green Economy as a way of generating development and employment but in a way that keeps humanityís footprint within ecological boundaries.

Part of the Green Economy work has been to assess and communicate to governments the multi-trillion dollar services that nature provides, but which until recently have been all but invisible in national accounts of profit and loss.

So what of the future? As Environment Ministers gather in Nairobi for their annual meeting of the UNEP Governing Council in February 2012, all eyes are on the follow-up to the Earth Summit of 1992, or Rio+20.

This meeting, taking place in June, may prove to be an opportunity where the Green Economy initiative is translated into a fresh and forward-looking way of finally realizing sustainable development for seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050.

And in their submissions to the Summit, many governments are also signaling that the time has come to evolve UNEP itself onto a higher level, perhaps into a World Environment Organization.

Whatever the final outcome of Rio+20 Ė it is a great compliment to an institution when after 40 years member states express the wish to strengthen it and to do so in its African home.

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