More than thirty years ago, a mass movement began to take shape that resulted in the observance of the first Earth Day in the United States in 1970, and, only two years later, the creation of the United Nations Environment Programme -- UNEP. Both events were milestones in Governments' and people's awareness of the dangers of environmental degradation and the need to do something to redress that peril.
As we approach the new millennium, Earth Day, and the coming World Environment Day, provides us with an ideal opportunity to take stock of the planet's health and the well-being of its inhabitants and begin to address the critical issues to be faced in the 21st century. This year's Earth Day campaign, with its focus on energy and climate change -- "New Energy for a New Era" -- is particularly timely in that regard.
It was UNEP's own Global Environment Outlook two years ago that had identified energy as one of the key priority areas for action by the global community in the coming millennium. The report noted that "Current patterns of energy use require drastic changes, because of their destructive impacts on land and natural resources, climate, air quality, rural and urban settlements, and human health and well-being. Alternative energy sources need to be vigorously pursued and their application enhanced. Energy efficiency still needs to be greatly improved, and emissions need to be reduced".
Energy consumption is inextricably linked with today's overall consumption patterns; few human actions have such a great effect on the environment -- at the local, regional, global levels.
It is imperative that human society shift to cleaner forms of energy supply -- to renewable energy sources and to develop new technological solutions; such a shift is not easy but can be done if there is political will, and if the necessary economic incentives are put in place to orient decision-making towards overall sustainable production.
More efficient use of conventional energy sources is just as important as we make this transition; private industry, particularly energy companies, must lead this effort as they have the necessary technical skills.
That is why UNEP is promoting energy efficiency through its "cleaner production" approach. An International Cleaner Production Declaration, which embodies commitments to develop policies and technologies which are making efficient use of natural resources, and in particular energy, has already garnered over 1800 signatures, from both governmental and private entities.
Of course, individuals and communities are not sitting idly by, awaiting national government directives. They are already making a difference through their daily choices. Municipalities throughout the world are applying energy-saving schemes and adopting transport policies that encourage emission savings and improvements in urban air quality. They are doing so at little monetary cost, turning the resultant savings into added local community improvements.
Awareness at the family level and application of simple solutions are also resulting in savings on domestic fuel bills. Enlightened utilities and small businesses are replacing energy costs with profits. Business associations have put energy efficiency and climate awareness high on their agenda. Some, like the insurance and travel industries, are working closely with UNEP on voluntary codes of conduct that demonstrate environmental responsibility that others should envy and replicate.
As we approach the new millennium, and celebrate this the "Earth's Day", a re-energized environmental movement, built on the legacy of 30 years of activism, is as needed as ever. In the end, though, it will be concerted actions of both governments and the average citizen that will allow a future that is prosperous, equitable and sustainable for all; a future that gives us hope and confidence about the prospects for our home, the planet Earth.
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