Press releases

Tuesday 08 Apr 1997

Fifth Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development

New York, 8 April 1997 - UNCED was to be the doorway to a new era. An era of greater concern for the growing vulnerability of Planet Earth to accelerating environmental degradation as well as an era of growing equity among nations and between generations. The new laws, principles and goals set forth in Rio were to lay the foundation for a new green world order. There was also a coherent theme of global solidarity, a sensibility arising from the recognition of shared danger in the face of a rapidly deteriorating environment.

Five years have passed since we initiated this conscious and cooperative venture to rationally manage earth's natural resources. Yet, five years later, we are confronted with indisputable evidence that the struggle to keep our planet habitable is at a critical juncture.

UNEP's recently released Global Environment Outlook report reveals that even as our technical ability grows, there is a steady and a seemingly inexorable deterioration of our environment.

According to the report, the quickening pace of our assault on the environment continues to be dramatic in its impact. Global warming, the degradation of the ozone layer, the decline of biological diversity, the loss of soil and forests, the contamination of our fresh water supplies and even the great oceans, vanishing fisheries, the flood of toxic substances entering our environment and our bodies and threatening our physical and reproductive health
- all signal that we continue to make excessive demands on the global environment that sustains us.

Unfortunately, there is an immense disparity between the rhetoric of governments and international institutions and the reality of a threatening environmental future. Fundamental changes that had been called for at the Summit have still not taken place.

In the final analysis, one clear lesson from UNCED is that environment and security are inextricably linked and environment is a political issue. Whether or not solutions are effectively applied will continue to rely upon politics and policy, upon the attitude of leaders, political parties and their constituents.

It is true, we have come some way since Rio. Unfortunately, it is also true that the more demanding part of the journey lies ahead of us, not behind us.

Let me be absolutely clear on one point. Failure to deal with environmental problems is not an acceptable option for the nations of the world. The stakes are much too high and threats to the future of life on Earth have reached a magnitude that cannot be ignored.

This year, as we mark UNEP's 25th anniversary, assess progress in the post-Rio period, and chart the way ahead, the time is right to consider how UNEP can best be equipped and empowered to realize its potential as the United Nations voice for the environment.

The seminal question to be asked is not what changes are required in the UN to cope with the challenge of sustainable development. Rather, the point of departure should be what kind of international organization is needed on the margin of the millennium, at a time of blurring sovereignty, blinding technological change, integrated economics, and growing alienation between political processes and peoples passions.

The Nairobi Declaration, adopted at the nineteenth Governing Council, affirmed UNEP as the principal United Nations body in the field of the environment and recognized it as the leading global environmental authority that sets the global environmental agenda, that promotes the coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development within the United Nations system and that serves as an authoritative advocate for the global environment.

Other indisputable achievements of the nineteenth session of the Governing Council include reaching consensus for priority programme initiatives including the chemical agenda, the Global Programme of Action on the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land based Activities, environmental law and trade and the environment. Thus I can, with confidence, assure you that your understandable concerns about chemicals, trade and oceans are being addressed.

In some circles, the achievements on substantive questions were overshadowed by the unresolved issue of governance. I am pleased to report that following complex negotiations, last week's resumed session of the Governing Council brought to a successful conclusion this matter. We now have, as an integral component of UNEPs governing structure, a forum for the worlds environment ministers, a place to set the worlds environmental agenda.

UNEP is the champion of global environmental issues and is an independent, objective and authoritative advocate for the environment. The world knows it needs a stronger UNEP -- witness the Nairobi Declaration and the NGO statement emerging from RIO+5. To respond effectively to the challenges of the next millennium, UNEP must become a true world environmental authority not only promoting effective international collaboration and joint actions but bringing coherence to an increasingly fragmented system of environmental laws and secretariats, setting standards and norms and effectively promoting compliance. We stand ready to transform UNEP into the organization that the world needs.

The occasion of the upcoming Special Session of the General Assembly reinforces the willingness of the global community to examine what progress has been achieved since UNCED. For its part, UNEP has made major contributions to the implementation of Agenda 21. As far as the CSD work programme is concerned we have assumed and delivered on our responsibilities as a task manager in areas including toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, desertification, biodiversity and jointly with the World Meteorological Organization on atmosphere and with DPCSD on information for decision making. The Commission has also assigned to UNEP an instrumental role in areas such as trade and environment, sustainable consumption and production, the development and transfer of environmentally sound technologies, integrated management of land resources and sustainable management of biotechnology.

The international community will have to establish priorities in a decisive manner. Ministers and the non-governmental community speak of the need for a global strategy on energy, a reinvigoration of action on freshwater, continued momentum on oceans and an examination of new and emerging issues such as tourism. In very practical terms, UNEP can be helpful to advancing these sustainable development challenges.

First, energy.
The issue of energy was for well-known reasons not adequately reflected at the Earth Summit. It is, however, becoming more and more obvious that without a comprehensive sustainable energy strategy the environmental consequences will be catastrophic. UNEP strongly believes that launching an "energy decade" aiming at addressing energy issues in a comprehensive manner is a pressing responsibility of Governments. UNEP could in this context assist countries by building upon the unquestioned expertise it has developed in "Cleaner Production", "OzonAction" and on clearinghouse mechanisms. UNEP has a proven record in providing a clearinghouse function under the Montreal Protocol as also a credible sustainable production and consumption programme involving partnerships with governments and industry, involving a broad context of energy issues.

Second, freshwater resources.
UNEP firmly believes that there is a need to strengthen intergovernmental dialogue on freshwater resources. Designated by the Secretary- General as the UN agency responsible for the global mandates for water, UNEP has the broadest and most comprehensive mandate within the UN system for addressing global, regional and sub-regional water issues.

UNEP's vision of addressing water issues in a comprehensive manner has facilitated its consolidation of its freshwater and oceans/coastal programmes into a single, integrated Water Branch. In Africa the dialogue is already underway. Based on this experience and the lessons from the regional workshops conducted last year, we will do our best to assist this intergovernmental dialogue and I will be happy to share with delegates in the days ahead what specific steps UNEP could take in order to assist in a substantive manner any intergovernmental mechanism established to address issues and objectives outlined in Chapter 18 of Agenda 21.

Third, oceans.
Effective implementation of the Global Programme of Action to protect the marine environment from land-based activities is one of UNEP's highest priorities. In doing so, the concerns of small-island developing states will be paramount. But the international community needs to give thought to an oceans assessment and a genuine examination of the synergies and complementarities of Regional Seas programmes, the Law of the Sea and fisheries management.

Fourth, tourism.
With more than 570 million tourists traveling internationally and to destinations of environmentally sensitive areas, tourism is an important emerging issue to which relatively little attention has been paid. UNEP has already provided a platform for increasing knowledge of environmental impacts and creating greater awareness in the tourism sector. The next five years must be ones of building consensus on policies and strategies.

The business of the United Nations is largely perceived as the province of intergovernmental interplay, governed by its own dynamics and largely insulated from the public eye. If there is one central lesson that should be learned after 50 years of its functioning, it is that the UNþs business is everyoneþs business and its conduct and culture should not be exclusively conditioned by the nexus of diplomacy and bureaucracy. Only then can the United Nations and its agencies succeed in implementing the concept of sustainable development in its entirety.

Through its new Global Environmental Citizenship Programme, UNEP is reaching out, finding innovative ways to change attitudes and behavior, to inform and educate. The contribution of civil society and its major groups must continue to be encouraged.

UNEP is proud to be one of the CSD's partners. As environmental custodian, voice and conscience, we will rededicate ourselves to ensuring that the environmental dimension of sustainable development is at the forefront.

Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme
at the Fifth Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development

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Tuesday 08 Apr 1997
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