Press releases

Monday 21 Jan 2002

Chemicals, Strengthening UNEP and Modernising the World's Environmental Machinery Key Issues at Global Environment Talks

Environment Ministers Meet in Colombia on the Road to the World Summit on Sustainable Development

Environment Ministers Meet in Colombia on the Road to the World Summit on Sustainable Development

Nairobi/Cartagena, 21 January 2002 - A pioneering new initiative to protect the world's people and its environment from hazardous chemicals will be one of the key issues facing ministers meeting in Cartagena, Colombia, this week.

In recent years, there has been a trend towards moving chemical manufacturing from industrialised to developing countries.

Experts have told the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) of their concern that many poorer nations may not have adequate safeguards or emergency response systems in place to deal with chemical spills or accidents of the kind that occurred in Bopal, India, 15 years ago.

Meanwhile the number of chemicals coming onto the market has dramatically increased with an estimated 80,000 introduced over the last half century.

There is concern that many of these have not been tested for their full range of health and environmental effects including their potential to disrupt the hormonal systems of animals and human beings.

Some experts believe existing and new chemicals also need to be better evaluated for their impacts on vulnerable groups including children and pregnant or breast feeding mothers.

Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of UNEP, said: "UNEP was asked by governments at our last Governing Council to prepare a report on a new strategy for the management of chemicals. We will present our findings to environment ministers in Cartagena. It is our considered opinion that a new, strategic, approach is needed that mobilizes the skills and financial resources of scientists, industry and governments. Such a strategy would also build bridges between the various chemicals agreements and conventions to make the world's response to how we use chemicals more effective and safety-concious".

"If the Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF), meeting in Cartagena, give this the green light then it will form a key submission to the crucial UN World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) taking place in Johannesburg later in the year," he said.

Mr Toepfer emphasised that UNEP was not anti-chemical and that the organization was active in working with governments and others to develop and deliver chemical agreements including the recently approved Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.

"Chemicals, in areas such as medicine and agriculture, have played an important role in improving quality of life. But, as we learn more about the way some chemicals interact wildlife and people, how many chemicals together can have surprising impacts, and how long term exposure can increase the risk, we realise we must be careful and prudent about balancing the economic and social benefits with the environmental and health questions, "he said.

The new approach, suggested in the UNEP report, outlines 18 key areas of action.

These include improving the ability of developing countries to deal with chemicals and the issues surrounding them, so called capacity building, promoting cleaner chemicals production and a shift from "highly toxic chemicals to those with lower toxicity or non-chemical alternatives".

A crackdown on the illegal trade in banned chemicals including action to prevent smuggling and dumping of outlawed substances and better labelling and safer packaging.

A harmonization of risk assessments for existing and new chemicals and the development of methods to assess the endocrine (hormonal) disruption potential of chemicals.

Jim Willis, head of UNEP's Chemicals Unit based in Geneva, Switzerland, said a survey of governments had also flagged up a range of other issues that a new initiative might tackle.

"These include improving developing country access to the wealth of information on chemicals that already exists, boosting their scientific skills on chemicals management and emergency response to accidents, financing specific environmental projects such as the disposal of obsolete and stockpiled pesticides, setting up emission inventories, improving storage and disposal facilities and supporting education and research in developing countries on environmentally friendly pesticides and non-chemical pest control products," he said.

The particular difficulties facing the Least Developed Countries and the special vulnerability of small island states, including the threat of contamination of atolls, freshwater and the marine environment, should also be addressed in any new initiative, the report suggests.

A large number of environment ministers are expected to be in the Colombian, northern seaside, city for the Seventh Special Session of UNEP's Governing Council and the GMEF meeting which is taking place between the 13 and 15 of February.

Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's Executive Director, said: "The importance of this meeting in Cartagena cannot be under estimated as it comes in the run up to WSSD. Real progress has been made in tackling environmental issues since 1972 and the Rio Earth Summit of 10 years ago. But it is clear that a great deal more needs to be done".

"New and even more complex issues have emerged in recent years including the environmental impacts of international trade and the globilisation of markets, the consumption patterns of the rich versus the poorer parts of the world and the massive and rapid industrialization of large parts of South East Asia. Levels of poverty, which have a critical relationship with the environment, have become even more acute over recent years on Continents like Africa," he said.

"Meanwhile the huge debts of countries, particularly in Africa, is stifling their prospects for economic growth, and therefore environmental improvements, because they simply cannot afford to act. The huge growth in environmental agreements, while welcome, has not been matched by a political will to make these binding or enforceable. We urgently need to overhaul the environmental machinery, make better and more targeted use of our resources both human and financial and modernise the way we all work to achieve a better, cleaner and healthier world, " said Mr Toepfer.

"Unless we manage this better we face, indeed we already are facing, a similar situation to the imaginary, llama-like, Pushmi-Pullyu animal found in the books and films featuring Dr Dolittle. The animal had two heads, one at the front and one at the back, which meant it was difficult for the creature to decide which direction it should be going in and became exhausted even trying," he said.

Apart from discussions on chemicals, a wide range of other pressing subjects which will feed into the WSSD summit happening between August 24 and September 6, are on the table.

International Environmental Governance and the Multi-Lateral Environmental Agreements
Urgent action is needed to reform the operation of the burgeoning number of environmental agreements and conventions. Experts believe they are falling short of what is needed to fight the environmental threats facing the planet and deliver sustainable development.

There are more than 500 international treaties and agreements related to the environment, 302 or 60 per cent of which have come into being since the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment which led to the formation of UNEP.

Attending conferences and meeting the reporting requirements of these agreements is placing a huge burden and financial cost, particularly on developing countries.

Experts believe that streamlining these so called multilateral environmental agreements, which cover everything from wildlife and desertification to climate and environmental information, could free up much needed funds for environmental projects on the ground.

Options include co-locating or clustering the secretariats of conventions operating in similar areas and better and more efficient ways of working together.

It is generally agreed that many of these agreements lack "teeth" and need to be given more powers so that countries comply with environmental codes and rules. UNEP will present to ministers draft guidelines aimed at improving the compliance and enforcement of agreements.

Financing and Boosting the Authority of UNEP and the Global Ministerial Environment Forum (GMEF)
Strengthening UNEP to make it more potent in environmental protection, with its important impacts on poverty eradication, human health and sustainable development, will also form part of the Cartagena talks.

Mr Toepfer said: " It is essential that UNEP is given stable, predictable and adequate funding. One option may be to introduce voluntary, assessed, contributions so that countries are clearly aware of their financial responsibilities to the organization".

UNEP is working hard to boost the number of nations contributing to its finances so as to improve cash flow and a wider sense of ownership among countries.

Mr Toepfer will, in Cartagena, outline his goal to have 100 countries or just over half the world's nations contributing by the end of 2002, up from close to 80 now.

Meanwhile, a stronger and broader GMEF could serve as an umbrella, decision-making or policy setting body, to ensure the better functioning of the international environmental machinery and improved funding for UNEP and the environment generally.

The ministers will also review UNEP's work over the past 12 months including its work in preparing for WSSD and devising a strategy to better engage civil society, which includes trade organizations and environmental pressure groups.

The review will also examine progress on phasing out lead in petrol and a request that UNEP carry out a global assessment of mercury, a heavy metal linked with a variety of health impacts to humans and wildlife.

Note to Editors:
The seventh special session of the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme and third Global Ministerial Environment Forum will take place at the Centro de Convenciones y Exposiciones Cartagena de Indias, Cartagena, Colombia, from 13 to 15 February 2002, with parallel events beginning on 12 February 2002.

For documents and schedule see: http://www.unep.org/governingbodies/gc/specialsessions/gcss_vii/

For accreditation see: UNEP's web site: http://www.unep.org Please note that the Colombian government may require visas.

A special chemical edition of UNEP's Our Planet magazine (www.ourplanet.org) has been produced to coincide with the Cartagena meeting. Contributors include David Anderson, the Canadian Environment Minister and President of UNEP's Governing Council, Kjell Larsson, the Swedish Environment Minister, and Margot Wallstrom, the European Commissioner for the Environment.

For More Information please contact Tore J Brevik, Spokesman/Director of the UNEP Division of Communications and Public Information, on Tel: 254 2 623292, Fax: 254 2 623297, E-mail: tore.brevik@unep.org or Nick Nuttall, UNEP Head of Media, on Tel: 254 2 623084, Mobile: 254 (0) 733 632755, E-mail: nick.nuttall@unep.org

Please check UNEP web site nearer the date of the meeting for contact numbers in Cartagena

UNEP News Release 2002/04

Monday 21 Jan 2002
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