UNEP at Work                

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

With less than nine months to go before the Rio+20 conference, international momentum is building as a result of growing understanding of the need to re-think economies and reform an international system of governance that is falling short of what is required. On issues ranging from desertification to biodiversity loss, current responses and the institutions established to facilitate them are struggling to keep up with the magnitude and velocity of environmental, social and economic change.

Governments, civil society and business are meeting under an agreed timetable to follow a road map to sharpen and shape their positions on Rio+20’s twin themes — the Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication and an institutional framework for sustainable development. October’s meeting of the desertification convention, for example, will include a focus on livelihoods in drylands and sustainable agriculture.

Across all the issues nothing is clear cut: But there is some coalescing of possible transformative, cooperative proposals — from scaling up clean energies to new ways of managing the oceans, freshwater, food security, and disaster preparedness.

To date the main focus has been on the Green Economy. One key issue is tackling fossil fuel subsidies: by some estimates, these range from $400-$600 billion a year — or four times what it would cost to bring Official Development Assistance up to the 0.7 per cent target. Another is green procurement: on average public purchasing accounts for 23 per cent of GDP worldwide, enough — it is thought — to tip entire markets onto a more sustainable track. Other such areas under consideration range from reforming bilateral investment agreements that hinder the adoption of clean energy to developing a smarter indicator of wealth that goes beyond GDP.

Meanwhile governments from Kenya and Germany to Malaysia and France are signaling support for strengthening or upgrading UNEP to boost the environmental pillar of sustainable development. Other governance proposals include transforming the Commission on Sustainable Development into a Council or merging its functions in a strengthened UN Economic and Social Council.

The missing overall link so far is broad political support. Brazil, however, is signaling its determination to provide leadership as are several African, Asian and European heads of state. If more like-minded leaders — including from civil society — demonstrate their backing, there is every chance that the promise of Rio 1992 can be finally transformed into profound outcomes, reflecting a fresh sense of purpose unfolding among nations to put sustainability both front and centre stage.

Luc Gnacadja

Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD)

Soil, featured prominently in this issue of Our Planet, is a critical part of the global commons. Productive land is pivotal in the survival of life on Earth, yet 12 million hectares of it is lost every year due to desertification and drought. Over the next 25 years, such losses may reduce global food production by up to 12 per cent, increasing world prices by as much as 30 per cent. If we are serious about moving to a Green Economy, in which agriculture and food security are embedded in sustainable development, we must switch to sustainable land-use practices. To do so, the global dimension of desertification and land degradation must be recognized at all levels. Without healthy soils, we will lose other global commons like water and biodiversity.

Soil’s importance as a global common has yet to be anchored in the minds of decision makers. But there are signs of change. On 20 September, world leaders will gather at the United Nations General Assembly in New York for a high level-meeting on addressing desertification, land degradation and drought in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. The time is ripe for a paradigm shift that takes land and soil as finite resources. The current famine and drought in the Horn of Africa reminds us that building the resilience of the drylands communities and pursuing sustainable land management globally are critical to the future well-being of a civilized international society in the 21st century. The cost of action today is far less than the future costs from inaction.

In practical terms, this means pursuing a target that makes history of the loss of land — such as for example, ‘zero net land degradation’ as part of the global sustainable development target. The long-term sustainability of productive land is under threat, but together, we can reverse the trend if we act swiftly. Now, more than ever, the international community must intensify its efforts to forge a global partnership to reverse and prevent desertification and land degradation, and to mitigate the effects of drought. Poverty reduction and environmental sustainability will be among the quick and lasting returns on our investment.

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