The head of the UN Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, has warned that world leaders have not done enough to show that they are ready and willing to tackle environmental problems in the run-up to the Rio+20 conference
UN Environment Programme head Achim Steiner. (Photography: Made Nagi / EPA)
Achim Steiner, the German-Brazilian head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), has warned of a lack of bold political leadership in the run-up to the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development.
Speaking after the successful conclusion of the UN’s COP10 conference of the Basel convention on hazardous waste in the Colombian city of Cartagena, Steiner said that “if the conference is going to be a success, it will above all require commitment and movement from political leaders, presidents and prime ministers”, which had so far not been forthcoming.
“We’re seven months away from a very significant conference, in which the future path for the world will be discussed, “he said. “Twenty years after Rio, it is a unique opportunity to take a hard look at how successful we have been on sustainable development. While a conference doesn’t change the world, it can set the trajectory for the coming years.”
Steiner said that the financial crisis had led to leaders taking their eye off the ball with regards to dealing with environmental crises and that this would make it harder to keep within a two degree rise in global temperature.
“We are losing valuable time,” he warned, “with future generations set to pay an inordinately high price to catch up.”
Global warming is not the only issue that needs addressing with Steiner also pointing to other key threats such as species extinction; a third of the world’s population facing water stress by 2020, food insecurity and humanity’s brush with planetary boundaries.
Despite the challenges ahead, Steiner said he was an “optimist by nature” and noted that there are record levels of investment in renewable business, with $211bn injected into the sector last year alone.
He also pointed to specific examples of leadership such as Costa Rica’s record on payments for environmental services and ecotourism and Brazil’s achievement over the past decade on the Amazon, leading to the single greatest reduction in CO2 emissions from a country.
Steiner said Kenya has new and far-sighted legislation on the green economy, and Korea and China had responded to UNEP’s call in 2009 for “greening fiscal stimulus packages as part of their measures, actually leading to significant increases in environmental investments”.
UNEP will in the coming weeks publish its full report on the “green economy”, one of the two pillars of the Rio+20 conference, the other being a discussion of the institutional framework and international environmental architecture moving forward.
Steiner said the green economy offers not just “the decoupling of economic development from pollution and wasteful resource consumption”, but also the opportunity, especially important at the current time, to generate new employment, technical investment and a flourishing economy.
But to achieve this, he said there is an urgent need for strong fiscal policy and the phasing out of perverse subsidies with the need in particular to “fine tune the signals in the key sectors of the global economy: agriculture, forests, energy, transport, fishing, tourism”.
Steiner also pointed out that investor support was essential if a fundamental refashioning of the global economy were to prove possible.
Over lunch with chief executives from the Colombian private sector, Steiner recounted a recent exchange with a Nordic businessman with a strong commitment to sustainability which rang true to him: “If I want to change my company; first let me change my shareholders.”
Steiner said he is encouraged by shareholders’ growing concern for these issues, and by the leadership which many in the private sector have shown. He pointed with admiration to the initiative of the São Paulo stock exchange to establish a sustainability index, and integrated natural capital reporting, both of which are intended to encourage companies to improve their environmental performance.
The state of São Paulo is also providing leadership by being the first area of its size in the world to develop a green economy plan for the state, while its federal government is working on a Teeb (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity study) for the whole of Brazil.
On the question of the environmental challenge in Colombia, one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, Steiner made reference to the country’s need both to “battle against poverty, and to value natural capital”. However, like many Colombian environmentalists, he is concerned by the proliferation of mining around the country, and said it was important for the government to determine quickly and decisively which areas are on and off limits for mining.
He also referred to Colombia’s newly created Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Development and his hope that the ministry will be able to negotiate the licenses that it gives, in particular mining concessions, in a transparent and fair manner.
Steiner said the concept of “net biodiversity impact is crucial” and posed the question of whether a company can offset the damage it causes with a parallel intervention elsewhere, leading to no net loss, and perhaps even a net gain, in terms of biodiversity.
Author: Edward Davey
Source: The Guardian