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Statement on the 25th Anniversary Celebrations of UNEP

Nairobi, 15 December 1997 - Spawned by the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, nurtured by the governments of the world, supported in its work by the non-governmental organizations, and thrust onto the public policy agenda by an idealistic new generation, the United Nations Environment Programme's work has cut across national and political divides and spread to almost every country on earth over the last 25 years.

It has won for the environment millions of adherents, generated new bodies of legislation, encouraged a rethinking of economic priorities and brought the environment on to the centre stage of domestic policy and international agenda.

The United Nations Environment Programme is built upon a heritage of service to the environment.

But as I pause to reflect on UNEP's record during the last twenty five years, I am very much humbled and even awed by the heroic struggle of hundreds and thousands of ordinary men and women at the front lines of the environmental revolution. It is their struggle that has wrought a fundamental change in human values. They changed our perceptions of the world in which we live. In just a few decades, they succeeded in overturning the assumptions of centuries. They awakened humanity to the basic truth that nature is finite and that misuse of the biosphere ultimately threatens all existence.

Today, environmental groups range from multimillion-member organizations operating out of Washington, London or Geneva to Himalayan village associations fighting to save their very livelihood. Their philosophies range from accommodation between the needs of development and economic growth to uncompromising anti-growthism.

But, whatever the philosophies and methods of the parts, the ultimate aim of the entire environmental movement has been and continues to be the maintenance of the quality of the environment. Today, on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of UNEP, we applaud their achievements and their contribution to the global environmental revolution.

This anniversary provides a unique opportunity to review UNEP's role in light of the vast difference in the world that is now unfolding from that in which this institution was born.

The contribution of UNEP to sustainable development did not start with UNCED. UNEP's record charts the negotiation of global legal agreements and regional programmes, and is manifested today through an expanded environmental awareness reaching beyond Governments into the private sector and civil society at large.

Since UNCED, a process of reflection and consultation has allowed us to refine UNEP's mission, recast the focus and content of its programme. We have modified the way we work with an emphasis on achieving results, partnerships, decentralization and the cultivation of new constituencies while strengthening old ones. The integrated programme has been refocused around four environmental problems: sustainable management and use of natural resources; sustainable production and consumption; a better environment for human health and well-being; and globalization and the environment. UNEP now has a more decentralized and participatory approach to programme development and delivery with accentuated roles for UNEP's regional offices.

Today I have great pleasure in releasing UNEP's biennial report for 1996-1997 - a document of accountability - a document setting down for the record a remarkably productive period, notwithstanding financial constraints. Between these pages you will see clear evidence of the efforts and dedication of the people in this organization - from GEO, to the chemical agenda, from new constituencies in financial services to a Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment, from Biosafety guidelines to regional cleaner-production centres. The significant impact of our work from region to region is well documented. I think you will be pleasantly surprised by the extent of our reach.

But in many ways the Biennial Report is also the beginning of a new chapter for this organization.

One can look at the future in two ways. One is the probable future based upon the existing institutions and agencies continuing to act in the same way, at the same rate, with the same impact as they have in the past. The probable future is not necessarily the actual future at all. It is always a summary of the past, and all its predictions are predictions about the past and not about the future.

The other future is that based on possibility. And instead of a strictly limited number of possibilities, there are innumerable possibilities, some coming into existence in an effort to modify or overcome the statistical forecast. That is the approach I would wish for UNEP.

Let me just sketch four challenges we will face:

Deeper consideration must be given to the phenomenon of globalization and the environment. We are on the brink of becoming a truly global society with instant international communication providing exciting opportunities for the exchange of information. There are also undoubtedly many benefits to be gained from the liberalization of trade, and from the proposed freeing of international investments. But there remains the dichotomy of increased production and consumption against the need to sustain the planet's natural resources.

UNEP must continue its vitally important work in promoting the establishment of an international framework of environmental legislation through the effective negotiation of conventions and legal instruments related to biodiversity, chemicals, wildlife and the illegal trade in endangered species, and the protection of the atmosphere. But agreement on conventions is not enough. The challenge is to ensure the effective implementation of, compliance with and enforcement of existing agreements, as well as seeking international consensus to confront emerging environmental threats, such as endocrine disruptors.

Action to safeguard the planet's freshwater resources and continuing momentum to protect the oceans. The world's freshwater resources are both finite and irreplaceable. UNEP must foster wider intergovernmental dialogue on this issue. The unique "fair share" approach currently being pioneered in Africa should serve as a model for the wider international community. Concurrently, implementation of the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities must become a paramount issue for UNEP. UNEP's work on building legally binding procedures covering prior informed consent procedures for trade in hazardous chemicals and pesticides and securing international agreement on the most dangerous of the persistent organic pollutants must be a priority.

Finally, there is a need for an environmentally sustainable global energy strategy. Energy is the key to sustainable development but at present its by-products are the main drivers of global warming and are damaging the air quality in our burgeoning cities and polluting the oceans. The challenge is to make energy available to more people while reducing its harmful emissions from current levels. UNEP should increase its work in the field of cleaner industrial production, and at the same time continue to test environmentally sound technologies and share the results through a clearing-house.

But above all, UNEP should build the will to effect environmentally sustainable development. To achieve this, UNEP must not only nurture its traditional alliances but forge new ones with United Nations partners, governments, non-governmental organizations and wider civil society. The strongest weapon available to environmentalists is an informed and concerned civil society.

It is not easy for us as individuals to see how we can make a contribution as the issues seem mammoth and the effectiveness of personal action as minuscule. But the problems will be solved by many millions of actions. UNEP, in its role as environmental advocate, must work, directly to inspire, inform and enable world citizens to understand that their daily lives are, in the end, what will decide the future of the planet.

I know of no organization that has more potential to help realize the vision of a bountiful and healthy environment than UNEP. There is nothing that cannot be cured by a single-minded pursuit of the new directions we have together launched and by the infusion of fresh resources and initiatives.

The stakes are very high, for UNEP is essential not only to the global community as its environmental conscience, but being an essential component of sustainable development initiatives, is absolutely essential to the success of the United Nations.

On this anniversary of the United Nations Environment Programme, let us consider carefully the action which each of us - staff, members of the UN family and Governments - must take. We have a common task of preserving all life on earth in a mood of sober resolution and quiet confidence.


UNEP News Release. For information only.
Not an official record.

Statement by
Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell
Executive Director
United Nations Environment Programme
on the:

25th Anniversary Celebrations of UNEP

Monday 22 Dec 1997
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