Remarks by Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director
Champions of the Earth Awards Ceremony 2013
New York, 18 September 2013—Guests, ladies and gentlemen, members of the diplomatic, the United Nations, the scientific and civil society communities.
Welcome to the American Natural History Museum—the second time that Champions of the Earth has been held here.
It is the eighth time these prestigious accolades have been awarded—they are the UN’s highest recognition of environmental achievement.
They are made to men and woman who are truly outstanding in their own right and as sometimes part of a wider effort by communities, countries, companies and cities to stand up, be counted and be catalytic in respect to the environment—in respect to a sustainable future.
I would like to thank scientist and TV presenter Summer Rayne Oakes and actress Alysia Reiner for being our Masters of Ceremony—on any other evening their commitment to environmental issues and awareness-building would be in their own right worthy of eulogies.
Let me also thank Tan Mingzhou, the Chief Executive of the Guandong Wealth Environmental Protection company of China.
It is his personal commitment to the environment and above all generosity in funding these awards that is making this wonderful ceremony in New York possible in the first place.
Let me also thank UNEP Goodwill Ambassador, committed environmentalist, entrepreneur, and fashion icon Gisele Bundchen for gracing these awards too.
Gisele, when we call on you, you are so often there for UNEP when we need you despite your hectic schedule.
Many of you may not know in detail of the work Gisele is doing on the environment—but just Google her and be amazed, from championing clean cook stoves and forestry and water issues to her sterling support for the causes focused upon during the annual UN World Environment Day on 5 June every year.
And I am delighted that in a short moment I will be making a special announcement about UNEP and Gisele.
Last but not least let me also acknowledge the creative genius of Mr Dong Xiyuan, a Chinese artist who has designed some beautiful trophies for each of our Champions that match traditional porcelain-making with contemporary art.
His gifts reflect the harmony between man and nature and the goodwill we all need for protecting the earth. The lotus-shaped orb vases are, I am told, best viewed from above. Thank you Mr Xiyuan for these fine works and for being here tonight.
Ladies and gentlemen,
If we are to transform our economies, our mind sets and our way of living from waste and environmental degradation into a trajectory that offers hope, prosperity and stability for seven billion people—and all the wonderful creatures, species and landscapes that still exist on this Earth—we need all kinds of people.
People who can take the messages, ideas and examples of what is infinitely do-able but so far largely unrealized, to parts of the global public UNEP reports and UN processes so rarely reach.
That is why we need people like Summer Rayne and Alysia and Gisele who speak to audiences and the young and old in ways they relate to and respect.
And why we need the seven individuals we honour this evening as Champions of the Earth—individuals from the worlds of politics and science and of environmental movements, grass roots empowerment and technological innovation.
Champions of the Earth for Policy Leadership
Izabella Teixeira and Janez Potocnik are two extraordinary politicians drawn from two contrasting Continents—Latin America and Europe.
Ms Teixeira as environment minister of Brazil was a key figure in last year’s Rio+20 Summit and has presided over planning processes in Brazil that have seen a sharp growth in conservation areas.
She has also had to grapple with a great deal of foresight and pragmatism some of the most high profile issues that attract strong passions nationally and globally—fighting deforestation in the Amazon perhaps the most high profile of all.
She lives in a country where lifting people out of poverty, addressing social exclusion and growing the economy in many ways are all intimately linked to the future of Brazil’s forests and rich natural resources.
When Ms Teixeira’s nomination came in the world was looking at an extraordinary success story—a combination of strong policies, satellite monitoring and patrols on the ground had led to Brazil’s deforestation rates being cut by 84 per cent over eight years, from an annual loss of over 27,000 sq km in 2004 to around 4,500 sq km in 2012.
In the past few months, latest figures indicate that there has been an increase in deforestation rates in the Amazon.
Some may say that awarding the Minister and the Government of Brazil such a prestigious award might be premature.
But it is in the very nature of environmental challenges that there are victories and there can be set backs--- not least because often those linked with environmental degradation and illegal activities are always finding new ways to undermine efforts towards sustainability.
Brazil’s cuts in deforestation over recent years remains a remarkable success story given the pressures on the Amazon.
One thing I am convinced of is that as long as this Minister is in charge, efforts to redouble and secure Brazil’s ambitious aims to grow the economy while cutting deforestation will continue with greenhouse gas and other crucial benefits.
Janez Potocnik is another politician who keeps his eye on the environmental ball—his commitment to making Europe, and parts of the world where the European Commission funds development, more resource-efficient, is equally an inspiration.
Decoupling economic growth from the use of natural resources is one of the biggest challenges of our time and one of the key tenets to achieving a global and inclusive Green Economy.
Mr Potocnik has pursued these and other issues courageously at a time when European environment policy has been challenged by the deepest financial and economic crisis since World War II.
His determination that new kinds of jobs, improvements to the medium to long term growth of the European economy and the multiple benefits that can accrue from a Green Economy transition takes confidence and clarity.
But Janez has used the latest economics and evidence, intellect and Slovenian warmth to bring many of those doubters on board and keep Europe on its green path in areas including sustainable agriculture and food wastage.
Champion of the Earth for Inspiration and Action
Today everyone is talking about food, food wastage, food security and food quality—27 years ago Carlo Petrini was not just talking about it, he was starting to act on it in his native Italy.
The Slow Food Movement he founded to conserve biodiversity and revive small-scale traditional food production has now become a global force and a way of going back to the past to envision a more sustainable future.
Slow Food’s Terra Madre network is now in over 150 countries promoting sustainable agriculture and fishing.
Slow Food also established the ‘Thousand Gardens in Africa’ project, which supports communities and farmers in 25 African countries to combat hunger, and improve food security.
How to feed 7 billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050, and in ways that conserve the natural systems that underpin agriculture in the first place is a fundamental challenge of our time.
Carlo’s influence and inspiration is also supporting other causes—we are delighted that Slow Food is a partner in the UNEP and UN Food and Agricultural Organization’s Think Eat Save: Reduce Your Foodprint! campaign aimed at addressing the absurdity that at least one third of all the world’s food is lost or wasted.
Slow Food have been leading community actions across the world to draw attention to food waste, and highlight the actions that we can all take to reduce it. Slow Food’s Youth Network, for example, has a unique way of getting young people across the globe involved in recycling good food that would otherwise be thrown away from markets, shops, and households.
Their popular “Disco Soup” events see volunteers chopping, peeling, and slicing fruit and veg to sounds of dance music provided by DJs…before using the otherwise leftover food to make free meals for the local community. Disco-Soup events have been held here in the US, in France, Netherlands, Ireland and many other countries. Keep an eye out for one in your neighbourhood, and perhaps you co make tackling food waste part of your next night out on the town.
Champion of the Earth for Inspiration and Action
Our co-winner for the Inspiration and Action category is a woman who, from her native Mexico, has become a beacon for those determined to make sense of nature and the natural environment in the context of the poor and livelihood-generation.
Today, and as a result of summits like Rio+20 and the work of UNEP and its Green Economy initiative—due too to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity launched via the G8—the world is awakening to the multi-trillion dollar services nature generates, from providing precious fresh water, natural ingredients for medicines, sites for eco-tourism, and countless more services on which economies across the world depend.
The world is awakening also to the fact that the GDP of the poor is often dependent on the environment and its natural capital.
Martha Isabel Ruiz Corzo knew that in the 1980s when she began to establish what today is known as the Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve.
A "payment for ecosystem services" programme has been central to the success of the reserve which was granted protected area status in 1997—the first in Mexico to achieve this via a grassroots initiative.
The initiative assigned an economic value to fresh water, land, and other key natural resources. Local residents were paid US$30-40 per hectare of land for reducing cattle numbers and not cutting down trees, which improved local watersheds and reduced soil erosion.
Among a range of community schemes, the Biosphere Reserve operates over 100 recycling depots, which manage 900 tons of recyclable materials on an annual basis. The depots are run on a voluntary basis by local women.
Many nature reserves and important ecosystems now benefit from payment for ecosystem services—there of course need to be many, many more.
But if there is a mother to these nature-based offspring, then who better than ‘Pati’ as she is known to many—a worthy Champion of the Earth and may I say a moving, eloquent and inspirational speaker for those who have had the pleasure to hear her talk.
Champion of the Earth for Entrepreneurial Vision
We need great policies, people, ideas and actions to challenge the status quo. But we also need technology and technological breakthroughs.
Tonight we honour two pioneers in this field—Jack Dangermond of Environmental Systems Research Institute or ESRI and Google Earth.
They are if you will two peas from a remarkable pod.
Mr Dangermond and his wife Laura founded ESRI in 1969 and since then it has become a highly creative contributor to mapping, data collection and other technologies that are essential for understanding and better managing environmental change on our planet.
The kind of Geographical Information Systems ESRI has assisted in pioneering underpin work across the globe such as more effective mammal surveys in the forests of Indonesia to interactive online mapping to assist in relief efforts like Haiti.
ESRI takes its corporate social responsibility seriously too, having donated software freely to some 5,000 Non Governmental Organizations like Nature Conservancy.
Google Earth, whose award will be received by one of the company’s Vice-Presidents Brian McClendon, has like ESRI also become a powerful force in terms of visualizing our world in new and ultimately game-shifting ways.
The World Database of Protected Areas for example, which carries data on National Parks and Marine Reserves, has used Google Earth with the aim of boosting visitor numbers and potential revenues that can in turn increase local incomes and community buy-in for conservation.
Tourists can for example look at possible holiday destinations and see what reserves are there and what species of animals and plants they hold as a way of planning trips.
Champion of the Earth for Science and Innovation
Our final winner is someone who, if there was an award for doggedness and persistence in the face of critics and skeptics, might win it hands down.
But Veerabhadran Ramanathan or Ram as he is know to his friends is also a first class scientist—a person of conviction and someone who has transformed our understanding of air pollution and its role in climate change, public health and food security.
I perhaps here should pay tribute to my predecessor, Klaus Toepfer, for having spotted the significance of Ram and his colleagues’ work when they informed him of the many ‘brown clouds’ emerging around the world.
Brown clouds made up of many different kinds of pollutants—linked with the burning of fossil fuels and coming from sources such as cook stoves, diesel engines , power stations, and burning waste in agriculture and forestry.
Brown clouds containing black carbon, or what you and I know as soot.
Professor Ramanathan’s scientific enquiry has contributed to the knowledge that cutting black carbon and some other short-lived climate pollutants could cut a global temperature rise over the coming decades by some 0.5 degrees Celsius.
Fast action could also save several million lives including woman and children and reduce crop losses by some 30 million tones a year.
As a result of his work, the Climate and Clean Air Coalition was established last year, and now consists of over 60 members including governments ranging from the United States and Sweden to Nigeria, Mexico and Bangladesh.
His achievements are living proof that science can lead to inspirational policy-making and that technological solutions such as cleaner cook stoves to renewable energies can change the trajectory of development towards sustainability.
And underline too that by working on air pollution, massive gains can be made on multiple fronts economically, socially and environmentally.
Ladies and Gentlemen, we will be awarding our 2013 laureates individually in a few moments.
But I think also collectively the achievements, determination, vision and impact of their work on our lives and our world-- now and into the future-- is I am sure you will agree exceptional and worthy of the title Champions of the Earth.
Please let’s give them a big hand.