Press releases

Monday 11 Aug 1997

Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of UNEP to the International Media Conference (World Environment Day)

World Environment Day Seoul, 5 June 1997 - As many of you will recall, in January, UNEP published its first Global Environmental Outlook report. The message of the GEO report was clear: Humanity is polluting and using up vital renewable resources -- fresh water, urban air, forests and soils -- faster than they can regenerate themselves.

Damage to the ozone layer continues at twice the predicted rates.

We are failing to arrest global warming, even though we are already beginning to see the effects decades before expected.
We are failing to reverse the trend of plant and animal extinctions and the loss of biological diversity.

And a whole host of new problems is emerging, among them the proliferation of harmful chemicals throughout the biosphere and, consequently, in our bodies, wreaking havoc with our hormonal processes and quite likely diminishing the human ability to reproduce.

What is very difficult to understand is why things seem to be getting worse instead of better. No environmental issue has yet emerged that is not within the capabilities of the human race to resolve. We have tremendous knowledge and technological capability. And we have very compelling evidence on most issues for the need to act. But, somehow, what is still missing is the political will to do so.

Just five years ago, in Rio, literally hundreds of speeches were given by the most politically powerful people on the planet, illuminating the relationships between a healthy environment and the hope of building a higher quality of life for more of the world's people. Thousands of photographs were taken of heads of state and of government committing their countries to taking concerted action to protect and improve the quality of life on Earth.

If ever there was hope that the world was going to change in some very positive ways, surely this was it. But, astonishingly, even this great event, unprecedented in the history of the human race, has failed to alter the course of humanity sufficiently to put us on a sustainable trajectory. In the end, the will to take action has proven elusive. And it is very important that we come to grips with why this has happened.

Is it that, having reached such a crescendo, as it did at the time of Rio, public concern had nowhere to go but down, that a kind of fatigue set in, and that slippage on the commitments was then inevitable?

Maybe Rio was perceived to be such a success that it created too high a level of confidence that governments now had the problems well in hand and required no more public vigilence.

Could it be that the term sustainable development itself seemed too technocratic for the passionate activist in each of us and left us feeling a little cold?

Or was it that issues that seemed accessible in a local context became overwhelmingly complex when considered on a global scale?

Who knows. Perhaps there are elements of truth in each of these. But for me, the most compelling explanation for the yawning gap between expressions of will and action can be found in the phenomenon of globalization.

Concurrent with the inter-governmental negotiations leading to Rio was the conclusion of the GATT Uruguay Round leading to the liberalization of trade. While there are, no doubt, many benefits that arise from trade liberalization, it is also clear that it constrains the manoeverability of national governments to set standards, establish regulations and pass laws unilaterally.

The imperatives in the competition for international capital investment dictate smaller official debt and therefore smaller and less expensive government, reducing government s willingness to contribute to ODA, among other worthwhile things. The hardships placed on domestic companies trying to gain and maintain global market share while competing from a home base that has higher environmental standards than other countries is a distinct liability and politically difficult to sustain in the current job- hungry economy. The ever-present threat of multi-national companies to withdraw their operations in any country levying a higher than acceptable corporate tax bill further constrains government s options.

So, even with all the will in the world, the stakes have recently gotten a lot higher for any country wishing to take steps on its own to improve domestic environmental or social conditions. And even fulfilling commitments agreed multilaterally poses economic hazards if they are not binding agreements. The mere possibility that other countries could soften their resolve to hold up their end of the bargain, thereby giving their industries advantages over yours, could provide a pretty strong disincentive to action.

Ironically, while the ability of governments to fulfill their Rio and other environmental commitments is reduced, the need for them to do so is increased. Growth in global trade and the resultant economic activity also means growth in consumption and production. This means more of the planet's natural resources are being converted into products and services at a faster rate. They are travelling greater distances to reach their markets, and consuming more energy in the process. They are resulting in greater quantities of waste by-products in the manufacturing process and in more post-consumer waste for disposal.

The pressure that intensive competition exerts on each hectare of land to produce more food and other agricultural products means more intensive use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers, which can quickly lead to soil exhaustion while injecting more harmful chemicals into our land and ground water, into our food and drinking water, and ultimately into our own bodies.

When confronted with evidence of the damage we are doing to the planet and to ourselves, these are things no rationale person would want to do. Yet we still do them. It is as if we are compelled to against our better judgement. Compelled by the imperatives of an intensively competitive global economic order.

What is at stake here is not just national sovereignty, but human sovereignty. In the name of the free market we are in fact losing the freedom to act in our own self interest. People feel compelled to do things they would not choose to do. When a technological innovation appears that could reduce your workforce by fifty people, you have to use it because you can count on the fact that your competitors will.

When a hormone appears on the market that can increase the milk production by dairy cattle, or when genetically manipulated seeds promise higher crop yields, how can a farmer competing in the modern global economy resist?

The old argument was that you can' t fault the scientists for coming up with these discoveries and inventions as long as humans have the freedom to choose which ones they want to use. The question is how much freedom do we now really have? And how much freedom do governments have to honour their commitments under international environmental conventions? Unless those conventions are legally binding and enforceable, I would suggest, not much.

In the intensively competitive climate of the current international political economic order, there is a greater need for binding agreements than ever before. Agreements that are enforceable and that have built-in penalties that ensure the playing field is kept level. Not because governments necessarily want to let their commitments slip, but because it is very difficult for them to do otherwise if there is a risk that they will be put at a competitive disadvantage.

But how do we get there from here? How do we wean ourselves off of the sorts of ambiguous agreements that have a high voluntary content and loopholes so big you could sail the Exxon Valdez through them?

A big obstacle is sensitivity on the issue of national sovereignty, on which binding agreements is viewed by some as an infringement. But the fact is that while the sovereign power of national governments is yielding to the global market, their sovereign responsibilities to their domestic populations remains intact. The only way to fulfill those responsibilities in the current global order, the only way to regain the power from the market to respond to the demands for a decent quality of life, is through cooperative action internationally.

We are truly en route to a global society. But it can not work if we accept only certain bits of it. We must embrace globalization in all its glory or not at all. We need a basis of cooperation on the environmental and social fronts equal to the basis of competition that currently prevails on the economic front.

As you know, we have been very focused this year on the role of UNEP in this story. We believe it is an organization that has served the international community well over its 25-year history. But times are changing and UNEP needs to adapt. Environment as a preoccupation in the political affairs of the planet has to come way up in the scheme of things. UNEP must become a credible, authoritative, influential and politically relevant global voice for the environment, of a stature on a par with the voices of trade and finance, equipped and empowered to meet the threats to the health of the planet head on.

This year, the reform of the United Nations and the review of progress since UNCED are very much on everyone's minds. As the discussion moves to New York towards the end of the month for the United Nations General Assembly Special Session, there is every possibility that the convergence of these two questions will give rise to a revitalization of the United Nations, and a recognition of the need to empower and equip UNEP to succeed where we can not afford to fail.

Some might suggest that it is really up to the media to put the environment back on the public agenda and build awareness and support for strong action by governments. But it would be hard to imagine the media being able to provide any greater effort for the environmental cause than that which was mounted at the time of Rio. Hype will not do it. Rio quite clearly showed us that you can lead a horse to water but you can' t make him drink.

No, even in this market-driven world, it is still up to governments to act. And there is still room for governments to act if they will choose to act together.

At this crucial time, it will be important to recognize the failure of political will when we see it, even if it is somewhat understandable why it has happened. It will be important to recognize the difference between governments that genuinely wish to help the United Nations adapt to changing times, and those that are merely seeking to save political face by using the U.N. as a scapegoat. It will be important to recognize the difference between calls for reform of this great institution with a view to making it more effective and those using the post-Rio failings as an excuse for rendering it impotent.

It is critical that in the call for reform we don't allow this crucial institution to be pulled out from under us. Because, in this competitive, market-driven world, the need for a credible U.N., capable of fostering cooperation, is greater than ever before.

Monday 11 Aug 1997
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