1998 - a momentous year for the global environment
1998 was the hottest year on record. It exceeded the records of the previous record year - 1995 by a wide margin. The year also saw the global environment experiencing some serious upheavals. And it is disturbing to note how grave the economic and social consequences are turning out to be.
As the year began, forest fires raged out of control in Indonesia's East Kalimantan province. These were followed by forest fires in countries as diverse as the Philippines, Brazil, Mexico, Russia, Greece and even the United States of America.
The Indonesian forest fires were a silent tragedy that have the potential of affecting the entire region with potentially grave, long-term ecological, political, economic and health consequences. A rich source of biodiversity was wiped out forever. Vast quantities of carbon dioxide were released into the atmosphere. Indonesia is home to more than 100 threatened animal species including the highest number of threatened mammals and the second highest number of threatened birds in the world. These fires may well have pushed the rare species of the Indonesian and Malayan Orang-utan populations to extinction. The region is also notable for its wide variety of plant life. 500 tree species were considered under threat of extinction.
There were floods in various parts of the world. They inundated large tracts of land and causing untold miseries to ordinary citizens and played havoc with their economies.
Estimates of damage caused by Hurricane Mitch are truly horrific. Food crops and export crops were decimated in Honduras, with high losses in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Economists predict a sharp drop in GDP next year in these countries. Trade deficits will increase as a result of the loss of cash crops.
Can all the blame be placed on El Nino and unpredictable weather patterns?
The United Nations Environment Programme was given the leadership role in the United Nations system wide initiative to deal with the forest fires in Indonesia. UNEP is also studying the causes of recurring floods in various parts of the world. There is no doubt that the origin of some of these environmental catastrophes can be ascribed to the disruptive weather patterns caused by the El Nino phenomenon. But unsustainable human activities are a major cause of these environmental catastrophes.
Local, national and global environmental problems have the same underlying causes. The first is inadequate policies concerning natural resources and the environment. As a result, human activities are altering the earth's climate and biogeochemical cycles, exhausting soils and water resources and destroying forests and other ecosystems, along with their biological communities. A second cause is the pressure on the resource base by a large and growing population. A third cause is the rapid urbanization, industrialization and the heavy demand for energy, particularly coal-based energy.
Widespread poverty also continues to play a major role. For the poor just to survive, they are compelled to take what they can from the land today and lack the means to conserve their natural resources for tomorrow. And it is the poor who suffer most directly and severely when the resources are degraded and when the environmental catastrophes strike.
Imperative need for early warning systems
The growing incidence of fires and floods around the globe last year underlined the need for accurate environmental data and information systems. An environmental catastrophe is not a single event. It is the result of a process of events, the effects of which impact the hardest on a population which is already vulnerable. It is possible to see these environmental catastrophes coming, to be prepared and to save lives.
As the flagship institution of the United Nations system concerned with environmental protection, the United Nations Environment Programme is strengthening its assessment and early warning programme. This should enable access to the scientific information needed by decision makers for better environmental management. It will also assist in assessing environmental conditions and threats to alert policymakers and facilitate development of impact reduction strategies and identify emerging issues.
Two events of hope
Amid the environmental catastrophes of 1998, two events gave cause for hope.
Positive predictions on the recovery of the ozone layer
The first event, in June, was the report that a full recovery of the Earth's protective ozone shield could occur by the middle of the next century provided that nations continue to observe and implement the Montreal Protocol.
Signing of the "Rotterdam Convention"
In September, came the signing of the "Rotterdam Convention" - a global treaty signed under the auspices of UNEP and FAO - which will severely curtail the $ 1.5 trillion trade in hazardous pesticides and chemicals.
There have been other significant achievements as well.
Protection of the coastal environment in Africa
The protection and sustainable management of Africa's marine and coastal environment was moved to the centre stage of policy and decision making through the UNEP supported Pan African Conference on Sustainable Integrated Coastal Management in Maputo.
Global International Waters Assessment Project
The development of an emergency response capacity and strengthening of early warning and assessment functions received a further impetus through the implementation of the Global International Waters Assessment project. This project will provide the first fully comprehensive assessment of the world's water related environmental problems.
Internationally Legally Binding Instrument on Persistent Organic Pollutants
Negotiations of an International Legally Binding Instrument for Implementing International Action on Certain Persistent Organic Pollutants began. The second session of the intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for the instrument will be held in Nairobi in January this year.
Release of interlinkages Assessment Report
The Interlinkages Assessment Report entitled "Protecting Our Planet - Securing our Future: Links among Global Environmental Issues and Human Needs" was launched in 1998.
UNEP supported the Fifth International "High-level Seminar on Cleaner Production" in South Korea to launch the International Declaration on Cleaner Production - which committed signatories to adopting a preventive strategy and environmental performance targets and reporting on their achievements.
1999 - the most important year for the global environment
This year UNEP will begin negotiating agreements with the potential to make 1999 the most important year for the global environment. Together with governments, UNEP will pursue its environmental priorities - globally and regionally and in partnership with business and non-governmental organizations. Each of these four dimensions is essential to UNEP's overall strategy.
UNEP will seek a legally binding agreement on certain persistent organic pollutants. UNEP will assist in the implementation of the provisions of the Kyoto Protocol through the development of market based mechanisms. It will strengthen its contribution to the work of the Global Environment Facility. It will seek to develop consensus on the implementation and build global awareness of the provisions of the biosafety protocol. It will seek to strengthen its regional seas programmes and bring them back into line with the current socio-economic realities. It will build strategies to improve compliance with international agreements - to ensure that those agreements yield lasting results, not just promises.
UNEP will also seek to build on the synergies and interlinkages available within various environmental conventions. We will focus on the regional element to confront pollution and the scarcity of resources in key areas - for example water - where they dramatically increase tensions within among nations.
Importance of the 20th session of UNEP's Governing Council
UNEP's Governing Council will meet for its 20th session in February this year. Among the items on its agenda, perhaps the most important one is the proposal for its restructuring. The restructuring of UNEP follows the guidance of the Secretary-General's report on United Nations reform, the report of the United Nations Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements, and the Nairobi Declaration on the role and mandate of UNEP.
UNEP's restructuring is a strategic response to the changing institutional, programmatic and budgetary conditions. It is not a reactive or a mechanical gesture, or a public relations exercise. We want our shareholders, partners and constituents to know that we are making every effort to be focused on our mandate, to respond better to countries' needs, and to be cost-effective.
Balancing imperatives of economic growth and environmental protection
Today the world faces uncertainty caused by the financial turmoil which began in Asia. World economic growth this year will be significantly reduced. But we must not forget that protecting our fragile economies and propping up our failing economies is as important as protecting our fragile eco-systems and diminishing species.
It is imperative that if we are to have any hope of protecting our environment, we must understand the connections between the health of the world's economies and the health of the resources on which those economies rely. Economists, financiers, businessmen and bankers will have to recognize the costs hidden in the exploitation of the seas, the lands and the air for short term wealth.
Idea of environmental stewardship
Nations are like people. Each must choose whether to live selfishly and complacently or to act with courage and faith. Ignoring the stewardship of any of our social, economic and environmental resources could seriously undermine the wellness of our societies. On the other hand, understanding our dependence on these resources can lead us to new insights about the meaning of security. We cannot be secure until these resources are available and ordinary citizens are empowered to be able to make decisions about their wise use.
For more information, please contact:
Tore J. Brevik
UNEP Information and Public Affairs, Nairobi
Tel: (254-2) 623292, Fax: 623692,
UNEP Feature 1999/1