Remarks by Achim Steiner at the Annual Conference of French Ambassadors Thu, Sep 1, 2011

Your meeting takes places some nine months in advance of Rio+20, scheduled to take place in early June 2012. Rio+20 comes at a moment in time when there is a consensus on the need to re-think the global economy and re-envision policies and instruments that reflect persistent but also emerging issues

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Paris, 1 September 2011

Your Excellency Minister Nathalie Koscuisko-Morizet, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for inviting me to address the annual conference of ambassadors of the Republic of France.

Your meeting takes places some nine months in advance of Rio+20, scheduled to take place in early June 2012.

Rio+20 takes place 20 years after the Rio Earth Summit of 1992.

Here world leaders including French President Francois Mitterand seized a vision and laid the foundations for contemporary sustainable development including three landmark treaties on biodiversity, climate change and desertification.

Rio+20 comes at a moment in time when there is a consensus on the need to re-think the global economy and re-envision policies and instruments that reflect persistent but also emerging issues.

It also offers an opportunity to reform, re-tool and re-focus the global institutions that we have inherited from a different century in order to ensure that they reflect the needs, geopolitics and demands of a new one.

The two agreed themes for Rio+20 reflect these two broad areas.

  • A Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication

  • An institutional framework for sustainable development

My remarks here will in a sense focus on the latter, although both issues are intimately intertwined.

There has been a great deal of debate, discussion and creative options outlined on a Green Economy in France and abroad, the discussion on an institutional framework is maturing not least as a result of France's initiatives to promote a reform of International Environmental Governance.

Let me briefly outline some of the reasons why a growing number of governments and experts believe the time is ripe for this issue while also providing some insight from the international process to date and towards Rio+20 and the various governance options being explored.

The Rationale

Next year UNEP will be 40 years-old.

Since the 1972 Stockholm Conference and as a result of the Rio Earth Summit of 1992, Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), have been negotiated and agreed covering trade in endangered species and hazardous wastes to ones protecting the ozone layer and climate including the well-known Kyoto Protocol.

It is estimated that environmental issues are now incorporated into the work of more than 40 international organizations.

At the national level, and in both developed and developing countries, laws have been enacted to support the implementation of these treaties; agencies for environmental protection have been set up and ministers responsible for the environment have become common rather than exotic species.

So we have on paper but also practically a great deal to celebrate and there are many success stories.

But there is another more troublesome side.

The over 500 MEAs, many with their own assemblies and governing bodies, have become an administrative burden for many developing countries stretching limited financial and human resources.

  • A summary of the number of meetings and decisions taken by Conferences of Parties of major (18 major MEAs) MEAs between the years 1992 ? 2007 shows that 540 meetings were held at which 5,084 decisions were taken

There is also a duplication of effort, fragmentation of purpose and in essence there has been a piecemeal approach to sustainability.

Instead of looking at the whole patient, the world has treated each challenge separately rather than strategically.

Or if one wishes to be direct, we have been merely dealing with symptom upon symptom, giving the impression that challenges have been addressed but in fact masking root causes and root solutions. This approach has also prevented a more synergistic and effective approach from emerging.

So while there have been successes, the reality we find today is sobering and on a planet of nearly seven billion people rising to over nine billion by 2050.

  • 35 % of mangroves and 40% of forests have been lost over the past century. Ecotourism generates around $100 billion per year in employment.

  • Species loss is 100?1,000 times higher than in geological times

  • Of the world's fisheries, 80% are fully or over exploited and critical thresholds are being exceeded.

  • Many scientists estimate that a global temperature rise of 4 degrees C by mid-century may occur as a result of rising greenhouse gas emissions?or double what many experts say is the threshold for preventing damaging climate change.

According to The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) Report, an international initiative hosted by UNEP, loss of ecosystem services from forests alone may equal over $4 trillion a year.

On current rates, resource consumption may triple by 2050?an unsustainable level by anyone's accounts.

So we have a management regime that to date is failing this generation's search for sustainable development and will certainly short change the next unless a more effective, stronger, coherent and focused governance system can be established.

The Environment Dimension of an Institutional Framework

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

The Rio+20 theme is an institutional framework for sustainable development. It covers not just International Environment Governance but also the other two pillars namely economic and social.

But my focus here is the environmental side in part because there are many who believe that this remains the weaker pillar of the edifice as it stands.

The key question engaging governments and wider society currently is not just whether a global organization for the environment is needed?certainly many concede that the status quo is not an option.

But how it would be configured, and what would it do that would prove to be transformative.

Let me share some elements under discussions and consideration.

  • Firstly, it would require the authority to allow ministers responsible for the environment to achieve some parity and equity with their economic and social counterparts.

UNEP has a Governing Council that meets annually, but the decisions taken by environment ministers are referred to New York where they can be agreed or quite literally dismissed as part of the General Assembly process.

In addition, it may surprise you to learn that UNEP's Governing Council does not have provision for universal membership of member states to date.

A body with the kind of decision-making authority of a World Trade Organization or a specialized agency such as the World Health Organization could remedy this disconnect between ambition and reality.

  • Equally, there is a need for an anchor institution to provide authoritative policy guidance to the MEAs in order to address fragmentation and build a far more strategic direction between all the distinct parts of the current environment corpus.

A more authoritative and strengthened body could also get to grips with the issue of financing. Currently decisions over how funds allocated for the environment internationally are spent are often taken in parallel fora such as the Global Environment Facility.

Meanwhile the lack of a central and anchoring policy framework is leading to increased costs, inefficient targeting of scarce financial resources and curtailed consequences for achieving sustainability.

  • Another glaring gap linked with the existing governance arrangements is implementation.

To put it simply the world invests significant time, skill and capacity in negotiating and agreeing treaties, targets and timetables but far less in actually making these agreements happen on the ground and where it matters.

Any new structure must therefore address this disconnect by perhaps having a dedicated implementation arm able to support financially and build the capacity of developing and least developed countries to meet their commitments regionally and nationally.

  • Other important elements include building accountability into existing and future environmental agreements and decisions, backed up by peer review and review mechanisms. The African Union, the WTO and the Human Rights Council offer examples.

The effectiveness of systems of implementation and accountability can also benefit from partnerships with civil society and their knowledge, networks and independent scrutiny.

  • Finally science: Sound science underpins sound policy-making, but all too often that wealth of scientific knowledge available to governments is unfiltered or unfit for cooperative decision making.

A comprehensive science-policy interface spanning the full range of environmental challenges and sectors and capable of building scientific capacity in developing countries, is another key link in this forward-looking governance debate.

The Political Setting

So the need for reform of International Environment Governance has reached near universal consensus, but the specific proposal and level of ambition remain subject to debate. Some of the options and elements of how that reform might be shaped have however emerged.

There are also some names emerging from a World Environment Organization to a UN Environment Organization.

Meanwhile, some governments such as France have clearly expressed their interest in realizing such a new body in Rio 2012.

And during preparatory meetings over recent weeks and months aimed at shaping and sharpening regional positions on Rio+20, some regions have signaled their support for change and reform.

  • The Association of South East Asian Nations for example, meeting in Kuala Lumpur in July, endorsed the strengthening of the environmental pillar of sustainable development and recognized the need for an environmental organization.

  • Strong indications of support from many small island developing states" in respect to the pacific island positions.

  • The recent African Union Summit took a clear step forward in endorsing the need for a specialized agency for the environment.

In general there is growing support and intent for a new organization by developing countries as many of these countries see a general weakness in the IEG system to provide country assistance and therefore see the need for a new organization to assist them more effectively to implement their commitments at the national level.

The Next Steps

Inputs by governments and regional grouping need to be submitted to the United Nations in New York by the 1st November.

So over the coming weeks, more preparatory meetings will be held in earnest. For example:-

Africa (African Ministerial Conference on the Environment) workshop for Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of the Environment officials, 12-13 September, Bamako, Mali

South Pacific Islands (Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme - SPREP) Meeting, 13-15 September, Apia, Samoa

Central Asia (Interstate Sustainable Development Commission - ISDC), 21-23 September, UN Economic Commission for Europe- Environment for Europe, Astana, Kazakhstan

Arab Region (League of Arab States) Meeting on IFSD, 5-6 October, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

South Asia (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation - SAARC) Summit, 10-11 November, Addu Atoll, Maldives

Beijing, China High-Level Symposium on the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development will be co-organized by the Government of the People's Republic of China and the Rio+20 , 8-9 September 2011

Delhi, India, The Government of India and the UNCSD secretariat are jointly organising the Delhi Dialogue on "Green Economy and Inclusive Growth", 3 to 4 October 2011.

Other meetings are also an opportunity to evolve the debate to greater convergence. The G20 meeting in Cannes, France being one.

There may also be some opportunities to work though alternative forums and memberships such as the 56 member Francophonie.

Your Excellencies,

It is not for a UN Under-Secretary General or an Executive Director of UNEP to advise ambassadors of France on such events in terms of approaches to foreign policy.

Your government has, over several years, formulated a position on International Environment Governance that has been one of the most prominent, focused and advanced among nation states.

Perhaps what I could say is that despite a great deal of growing consensus on the issues, there remains in some countries?a declining number perhaps?a hesitation both in respect to the Green Economy agenda and the question of an organization for the environment.

Will both these agenda items serve the interests of the many or the interests of a few?

Indeed in some developing economies there remains concern that these two directions could be used by, for example Europe, to erect 'green' barriers to trade, effectively barring goods and services that do not meet certain eco-standards.

And that a new organization would effectively police this new pro-European, pro-developed country framework.

As Executive Director of UNEP, I can say that this is not how I perceive the ambition of those who support these kinds of reforms.

But as Executive Director of UNEP, I fully understand this point of view and the need to intellectually engage with those who hold such positions as regions engage in the run up to November's deadline and Rio+20 next year.

Rio+20 does represent an extraordinary opportunity to seize a moment in international/planetary affairs where the challenges but also the opportunities of a new century are becoming ever clearer.

I would suggest that we know enough today on what works and what needs fixing and reforming.

Whether collectively as more than 190 nation states the world can put aside the politics of suspicion in favour of the politics of collective, supportive and reformative action remains to be seen.

But there are strong indications that many countries and regional groupings of nations are keenly aware of the link between environmental sustainability and economic and social stability.

They are equally keenly committed to reform the way we manage the planet in order to achieved transformative and sustainable change.

Diplomacy that assists to clarify the truths from the myths and provides solid, scientific and supportive information and counsel will be vital.

It is one of the pieces that might just bring more than seven billion people into a cooperative agreement that allows all nations to prosper and meet their social and economic potential- without diminishing everyone's life support systems and pushing development and populations beyond key and finite planetary boundaries that we now know exist.

At the end of the day, any summit needs to craft a deal ? with enough for everyone to deem it worthwhile. Political leadership and engagement at the highest level will determine whether Rio can deliver such a deal.

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