UNEP and the green economy: 40 years in development

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Following four decades of UNEP initiatives on the environment and the green economy, attention turns to the Rio+20 summit where the idea of a true green economy could gain flesh and bones, writes Achim Steiner, from UN Environment Programme.

Achim Steiner is a UN undersecretary-general and executive director of the UN Environment Programme.

"Forty years ago in the Swedish capital Stockholm history was made at a UN conference on the future of humanity and the planet.

Amid rising concern over pollution of the air, the land and the seas; the growing loss of species; and the dying of forests as a result of acid rain, governments agreed that a UN body charged with coordinating a global response to such challenges should be established.

Between June 1972 and the UN General Assembly that year, many countries – including Mexico, India, the United States and Britain – lobbied to have this new environmental body. But in the end the Kenya won the diplomatic debate and in doing so became the first developing country to host a UN headquarters.

It was originally set up to coordinate the rest of the UN system’s activities on environmental issues and to provide the science to member states on emerging trends in environmental change.

The emphasis on science has perhaps been among UNEP’s most important contributions, having pushed governments negotiating key global treaties to address emerging environmental crises.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer – the protective shield that filters out dangerous levels of the sun’s ultraviolet rays – is a case in point. It became clear in the 1980s that certain chemicals used in products, such as fridges and fire-fighting equipment, were attacking the ozone layer.  By 2010, this UNEP treaty had coordinated the phase-out of more than 100 of these harmful gases.
Bringing forward the science and convening treaty negotiations continues to this day.

Only a few months ago, governments from across the world pushed forward plans for a global agreement on mercury – a notorious heavy metal that damages the nervous system. It was called the Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland because hat makers once used mercury to strengthen the brims of hats and breathed in the fumes.

In the late 1980s, as the world was struggling to understand the implications of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, UNEP and the World Meteorological Organisation established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Its scientific work has become the premier risk assessment and reference work for governments on the likely trends and impacts of global warming and the panel’s findings played a key role in the decision to establish the UN climate convention and its emission reduction treaty, the Kyoto Protocol.

Since 2008, UNEP has been championing the green economy to generate development and employment, while keeping humanity’s footprint within ecological boundaries. Part of this work has been to assess and underline the multitrillion dollar services that nature provides, but which are sometimes invisible in national accounts of profit and loss.

These estimates have tipped the balance in favour of restoration rather than degradation of natural assets.
Often large UN conferences can seem talkfests to outsiders and certainly assisting over 190 nations to agree and to cooperate can sometimes prove frustrating. But often the real benefits, especially in respect to environmental action of what nations agree, only emerge years or even decades later.

In Europe, through Strategic Cooperation Agreements with the European Commission, UNEP was able to offer funding to 40 projects in 2011 in the areas of biodiversity conservation, ecosystem management, combating climate change, improving resource efficiency, promoting the green economy, sound management of chemicals and waste, and strengthening international environmental governance.

So what of the future? All eyes are on the followup to the 1992 Earth Summit. Rio+20, taking place in June, may prove to be an opportunity where the green economy initiative is translated into a fresh and forward-looking way of finally realising sustainable development for 7 billion people, rising to over 9 billion by 2050.

Some governments, including Kenya and Germany, are also signalling that the time has come to strengthen UNEP itself perhaps into a World Environment Organisation.

Forty years ago many of the challenges facing people and the planet were still theoretical. Today they are fast becoming reality. The emergence of UNEP in 1972 was for some a surprise package – whether June 2012 will evolve the UNEP story onto a higher level, only time will tell."

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