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
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.
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.