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Tenth anniversary of GRID Arendal, Speech

23 Aug 1999 - Speech by Klaus Topfer, Executive Director of UNEP, at the Tenth anniversary of GRID Arendal, 23 August 1999

Excellencies, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure and privilege to be present here today to celebrate the tenth anniversary of GRID-Arendal. I wish to extend my gratitude to the Government of Norway, particularly the Minister for the Environment, Ms. Guro Fjellanger, on agreeing to extend the Memorandum of Understanding. This Memorandum will be signed today. I am pleased to inform you that this extension will ensure a further five years of core funding support for the continued operation of GRID Arendal.

To you Dr. Brundtland goes the credit of establishing this Centre. As the then Prime Minister of Norway and now as the Director-General of a sister United Nations agency, you have the satisfaction of seeing one of your many sustainable development initiatives attain maturity and prominence.

Ten years is indeed a proud anniversary for any organization. In this brief period, GRID-Arendal has established for itself a distinct personality. It has set a definite path for its future development. This is apparent from its many achievements.

Since inception, GRID-Arendal has strongly supported UNEP's assessment activities, particularly in Eastern Europe. Its cooperation with UNEP's regional environmental information and assessment network activities has had multiple benefits. It has resulted in the development of significant national capacities for countries to prepare their national environmental assessments. It has also made these assessments and related information accessible to the world for the first time. This is a major contribution to the global assessment process.

We in UNEP were very pleased when this service was publicly recognized by the grant of the 1999 Princes Award to GRID Arendal. This prize was awarded for the development and release of a computer compact disc on the environment in central and eastern Europe.

I would also like to congratulate GRID-Arendal for its pioneering work in polar information and reporting. In recognition of this accomplishment, as well as Norwegian and UNEP interest in polar issues, UNEP is designating GRID-Arendal as a key centre for polar environmental assessment and early warning with particular focus on the Arctic.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the 1980s, there was a sudden quickening of interest of the global community in the issues relating to the Arctic region. Several factors - all of them interconnected - were responsible for this remarkable upsurge.

First, the consequences of the cold war with its naval arms race. The deployment of nuclear missiles in Arctic waters and the militarization of the Arctic region in general enhanced awareness of the Arctic.

Second, the Arctic energy and mineral resources were explored and became technologically as well as economically exploitable. The establishment of a growth-oriented economic system which would begin to exploit these resources was seen only as a question of time.

Third, increased environmental awareness also brought the Arctic region on the global agenda. It was felt that the Arctic was one of the most vulnerable regions in the world and at the same time also one of the least polluted ones. In sharp contrast to the strategic and economic interests of the heavily populated southern centres, it was felt that it would be easy to adopt and implement a conservationist environmental policy towards the Arctic environment.

Fourth, and most importantly, the increased self-awareness of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic brought the region to the attention of the global mass media.

In this light, there are several questions that should exercise the minds of this august assembly: Do special conditions exist for a different kind of sustainable development of the Arctic region? Will Arctic development become just a component of the development process that has characterized the rest of the world? Will traditional arctic societies and cultures be taken as the basis for sustainable development in the region? Will an alternative model of development specific to this region be developed?

I know that answers to these questions are not easy. They challenge the very basis of the current process of globalization. After all, it must not be forgotten that the Arctic region has over the years become a well integrated part of the international political and economic system. Can the Arctic region develop the means to escape the depletion of its natural resources which form the basis of our current developmental model?

UNEP has an abiding interest in the relationship between the natural environment and indigenous peoples. Indeed, there is a remarkable overlap between the global mappings of world's areas of biological megadiversity and areas of high cultural diversity.

An estimated 300 million indigenous people inhabit more than 70 countries worldwide. They live in a wide range of ecosystems- from polar regions and deserts to the savannas and tropical forests.

Modem cultures abetted by new technologies are encroaching upon on once isolated peoples with drastic effect on their way of life and on the environments which they inhabit. Destruction of lands and livelihoods, the spread of consumerism, pressures for assimilation into dominant cultures are among the factors threatening the world's biodiversity as well as its cultural and linguistic diversity.

These forces are also fostering changes in perceptions and attitudes of the indigenous people. These have often led to the abandonment of traditional knowledge and behaviours and of the languages that are the repositories and means of transmission of such knowledge.

UNEP's recent publication "Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity" points out that out of 6000 languages that are spoken today, 2,500 are in danger of extinction. The threat to linguistic resources is now recognized as a worldwide crisis.

The loss of cultural diversity means a loss of intellectual diversity. Each culture and language is a unique tool for analyzing and synthesizing the world, incorporating the knowledge and values of a speech community.

To lose such a tool is to forget a way of constructing reality. It means blotting out perspectives evolved over many generations.

There is another argument as well - the broader interest in social justice. We should care about preventing the extinction of culture and languages because of the human costs to those most directly affected. Along with the accompanying loss of culture, language loss can destroy a sense of self worth, limiting human potential and complicating efforts to solve other problems such as poverty, family background, school failure and substance abuse.

The link with poverty is also clear. It must be remembered that the depletion of cultural and linguistic diversity does not happen in privileged communities. It happens to the dispossessed and the disempowered who most need their cultural resources to survive.


Anyone would think that the indigenous people of the Arctic region inhabit the cleanest environment on Earth. But the fact is that the Arctic region is not exempt from the inexhaustible variety of pollutants we create.

Scientists have concluded that the Arctic people are being poisoned by chemicals - the persistent organic pollutants that accumulate through the food chain - from plankton to fish, and then concentrate in the fat of marine mammals. Blubber, is a food staple of the indigenous people. As a result, the very survival of these indigenous people is at stake. If these people are now forced to join the growing ranks of environmental refugees around the world, the rest of the world has only itself to blame.

Giving up their traditional diet is more than impractical for these people. Their lifestyle is their identity.

As we enter the next millennium, it is essential that we do all that is in our power to stop the spread of these Persistent Organic Pollutants. The Secretary-General has called them - "Passengers without Passports". What is required is clear screening of the chemicals before they enter the market. We will also have to ensure the full implementation of Chapter 19 of Agenda 21. This is the framework on which the international chemicals agenda is built.

UNEP is working closely with the Intergovernmental Forum on Chemical Safety to further this agenda. We are also in an advanced stage in the finalization of a global Convention to ban persistent organic pollutants.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is imperative that we change our unsustainable patterns of production and consumption. As a dimension of sustainable development, sustainable production and consumption cannot be dealt with or understood in isolation. They have to be seen as a part of a continuum that links the entire sequence of events from raw material extraction, pre-processing, manufacture, life-cycle of the product, factors influencing their purchase, their use and ultimately their disposal.

Sustainable production and consumption also include broad and integrative ideas and practices such as pollution prevention, cleaner production, clean technology, waste minimization, resource conservation, eco-efficiency, eco-labelling and preservation of biodiversity. They implement sustainable development by focussing on common every-day strategies and actions that define the eco-market forces and system. They imply a re-definition of relationships between people and the products they consume. On a more fundamental level, sustainable consumption implies a change in the global economy, socio-cultural values and economic relationships between the North and the South. It also raises the question of equity.

I hope that UNEP's cleaner production initiatives and the new activities designed to further sustainable production and consumption and structures would be successful. We clearly require technologies oriented towards the model of re-consumption and conservation of resources.

In this regard, I would like to mention UNEP's promotion of the concept of "life cycle economy". This involves viewing the production, use and disposal of a product or function, as a comprehensive cycle covering all the processes required: extraction and processing; manufacture, transport and distribution; use, reuse and maintenance; recycling, and final disposal. Life cycle thinking implies that everyone in the whole chain of a product's life cycle from the cradle to the grave has a responsibility and a role to play, taking into account the all relevant external effects.

The latest legislative proposals by the European Union that aim to ban batteries containing cadmium by 2008 and make producers of electric and electronic equipment responsible for collecting and recycling waste product are a first step in this direction.

We have to move away from a "throw away" society and aim towards a society in which producers and consumers assume responsibility for their own actions and decisions.

UNEP is interested in exploring the possibility of undertaking, perhaps with WHO and organizations representing the indigenous people in Arctic regions, such as the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAISON), the development of a state of the environment and human health report in relation to the Arctic.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The task of assessing and monitoring the environment is not an option to keep the world of scientific research busy. It is a vital necessity.

With the development of assessment and monitoring technologies, we have begun to understand that we have started the destruction of the very resource base on which we survive. We have also begun to recognize that stemming this rot may well constitute the biggest challenge that we face as we enter the next millennium.

But dissemination of environmental data cannot be reduced to description alone. It has to provide an explanation for described behaviour or phenomena. I know that description can be immediately more gratifying than a sustained effort to derive understanding from a disciplined body of knowledge.

It is clear that environmental assessment and monitoring specialists will have to move away from a mere description of trends towards understanding and disseminating the cause and effect continuum. Otherwise the effect of the data generated by them on policy making will be marginal.

The second issue that I wish to highlight is that of complexity and integration.

Environmental issues interact with and interrelate with other seemingly mutually exclusive developments. For example, air quality issues interlink with health, energy and economic problems. Endangered species issues entail questions of habitat, land use, recreation, commerce and ethics.

It follows that the substance of an issue may change with the growth of information about it or its context. An issue may arise over air pollution but evolve into an issue of energy policy or of industrial economics. A water pollution issue maybe transformed into a public health issue.

One common purpose of science, and here I include assessment and monitoring and policy making should be to reveal the complex interlinkages between environmental issues.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Environmental assessment and monitoring can measure the quality and quantity of natural resources and can provide an aid to the decisions that must be made. But justice and solidarity must follow from these decisions and this is in the hands of other protagonists who are not present here today.

It is my contention that good environmental management is not a technical exercise separate from everyday economic and political life. It is not something tacked on after the fact of development. It can only come about when environmental values are embedded within political and economic systems.

Sustainable development can only happen when people define their own problems and take control of their own environments. In many cases sustainable development has no hope of realization where the problem is defined at the wrong scale, either too grandly or in too limited away, or where relevant stakeholders are excluded from participation.

This failing is no-where more apparent than in the manner in which the data generated by assessment is disseminated. There is a need for a bottom-up approach here. The information generated should be relevant to the real needs of the people. People should no longer be considered as passive recipients of information but as active participants in the entire process. Users have to be encouraged to become producers.

This will require extensive capacity building exercises in the developing countries. In any case, data from inventories must be open and accessible and not enclosed within the temples of Science.

In UNEP we have tried to develop systems which would allow our assessment division to undertake this role. The Global Environment Outlook report uses a network of collaborating centres located both in the developed and developing world to ensure a unique regional perspective of the environmental situation is presented to both decision-makers and the public.

The GRID network, of which GRID-Arendal is am important component, supports these assessments and early warning by building capacity and linkages to track changes in the environment and determine their significance for environmental early warning.

The key role for UNEP is to greatly enhance its capacity to undertake this function in all parts of the world. UNEP cannot do this alone. In providing a strong leadership role in global assessment and monitoring it has always looked for partners within the UN system, with other international governmental organizations, NGOs and with governments. The success of our assessment products depends on such cooperation.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We have been used to speaking and thinking of environmental conservation in very general terms. We are now asked to defend our environment in more specific terms: the soil, the oceans, the water, the oceans, the biological diversity and the ozone layer. If however we give this matter some thought, we will discover that the conservation of environment can only be global and systemic. All the components that make up our environment are interconnected. We must begin to think and act not merely in terms of our nations and generation but in terms of the entire vulnerable planet Earth and the generations of children to come.

Monday 23 Aug 1999
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