Press releases

Monday 11 Aug 1997

Statement by Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of UNEP to the UN General Assembly, Special Session 24 June 1997

11 August 1997 - The message of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio was one of hope and exhilaration. The world was about to change in some very positive and fundamental ways.

But, astonishingly, even this great event has so far failed to alter the course of humanity sufficiently to put us on a sustainable trajectory. With sober reflection this week, it is clear that, notwithstanding some progress, the will to take action has proven elusive.

Some of the most convincing proof of this is in UNEP's Global Environment Outlook. It concludes that humanity is polluting and using up vital renewable resources -- freshwater, urban air, forests and soils -- faster than they can regenerate themselves.

The facts are well known:

Some 1.7 billion people, more than one-third of the world's population, are without a supply of safe water.

Acid rain and transboundary air pollution, once considered problems in only Europe and parts of North America, are now increasingly apparent in parts of Asia and the Pacific and in Latin America.

Degradation of drylands continues to be an urgent global problem, placing some one billion people in 110 countries at risk.

Our failures are most pronounced in precisely those areas we spoke so proudly of in Rio -- climate change and biodiversity. We are failing to arrest global warming even though we are already seeing the effects decades before expected. We are also failing to reverse the trend of plant and animal extinctions and the loss of biodiversity.

And a whole host of new problems emerges -- among them the proliferation of harmful chemicals throughout the biosphere and, consequently, in our bodies, wreaking havoc with hormonal processes and quite possibly affecting reproductive patterns.

In the immediate future the international community must establish priorities in a decisive manner. Governments have already spoken of the need for a global strategy on energy, a re-invigoration of action on freshwater, continued momentum on oceans and a global agreement on a path forward on forests. In very practical terms, UNEP can be helpful to advancing action in all of these priority areas.

It is obvious that without a comprehensive sustainable energy strategy, global warming will continue unabated, urban air will continue to deteriorate and marine pollution will not be halted. Whether Governments decide to launch an "energy decade" or make some other firm commitment to pursue a sustainable energy plan -- UNEP is prepared to apply its expertise and excellence in the area of cleaner production. We are prepared to step-up our efforts, in collaboration, with the industrial sectors to achieve necessary goals and targets. Additionally, UNEP continues to test and share environmentally sound technologies and provide a clearinghouse for information.

UNEP firmly believes that intergovernmental dialogue on freshwater is long overdue. Integrated water management is our area of expertise and experience.

In Africa, the dialogue is already underway. UNEP agrees with Governments that freshwater should be a priority. This unique "fair share" approach based on consideration of environmental protection, economic development and social equity is designed to ensure adequate and clean supplies of water for all.

In the year of the oceans, the implementation of the Global Programme of Action to protect the Marine Environment from land-based activities is one of UNEP's highest priorities. Within this context, the concerns of small-island developing States must be paramount. But more is needed. We need to give thought to an oceans assessment and a genuine examination of the synergies and complementarities of new action on oceans with the existing regional seas programmes of UNEP, the Law of the Sea and pressing fisheries management issues.

Our great expectations demand the effective engagement of civil society. Governments must commit themselves to fostering a new generation of environmental citizens. People, young and old, must gain the capacity to make sound environmental decisions; to act instinctively to protect life on Earth. To do so, they must have better not just more environmental information. Schools and centres for learning must provide opportunities for students to learn about the environment and sustainable development. Non-governmental organizations must be given their place in the decision-making process. That is the premise upon which our Global Environmental Citizenship Programme is built.

But will this agenda be enough? How can we be sure that five years from now real results will be demonstrated. We know that 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. We must ask why.

Perhaps the most compelling explanation for the yawning gap between expressions of will and action can be found in the phenomenon of globalization. While there are, no doubt, many benefits that arise from trade liberalization, growth in global trade also means growth in production and consumption -- more of the planet's natural resources being converted into products and services at a faster rate. Globalization has brought instant worldwide communications and impressive flows of private capital. We are truly en route to a global society. And so it is urgent that we establish a basis of cooperation on the environmental and social fronts equal to the basis of competition that currently prevails on the economic front. If governments are to have any hope of arresting the impoverishment of their people and their environments, it will be by working together.

The only thing that can bring about this type of change is the establishment of means by which a level playing field can be secured among countries behaving in environmentally sensible ways. For every inch that intensive global competition drives environmental standards down, intensive global collaboration must build them back up again.

Environment as a preoccupation in the political affairs of the planet must ascend in the global scheme of things. UNEP must become the credible, authoritative, influential and politically relevant global voice for the environment. To do so, it must assume 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.

As UNEP marks 25 years of achievement, the need for a stronger, more powerful organization has been underscored in public opinion research, by Environment Ministers in the Nairobi Declaration, by civil society at RIO+5 and at CSD5.

UNEP will not retreat from this challenge. With confidence we are building for the future. The UNEP of the 21st Century will bring coherence to an increasingly fragmented system of environmental laws and secretariats.

The UNEP of the 21st Century will work with countries to put in place agreements and arrangements with teeth, that are enforceable. For we all agree, that there must be no advantage to inaction and non-compliance and no disadvantage to honoring commitments.

The UNEP of the 21st Century will build on its competencies, its analytical capacity, and its facilitating and catalytic role. Already, UNEP's work in such important areas as state of environment reporting, environmental law, sustainable production and consumption, trade and environment and environmental technology reflect its new orientation to deal with the realities of globalization.

But to be all that Governments want it to be, the UNEP of the 21st Century also needs the kind of financial support and commitment that is given to counterpart economic institutions. It needs the kind of political ownership and vitality that I am confident is now being generated with the creation of the new High-Level Committee of Ministers and Officials.

Will this week be a defining moment for the environment? So many seem preoccupied with sketching a grand vision and agenda for the 21st Century. But if we have failed it is perhaps because we have not been bold enough in our actions, not our dreams. Perhaps bureaucracy has blunted the focus of our vision and effectiveness. As we enter the next century let us simply commit ourselves to tending first to the unfinished business of this century. To this task UNEP dedicates itself.

Monday 11 Aug 1997
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