Achim Steiner plants a tree

by Achim Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme

2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) as a result of the UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment of 1972. 

The four intervening decades have seen a sharp rise in global awareness of environmental issues, and over recent years a growing understanding of the link between environmental sustainability and sustainable development. 

Over the 40 years there has also been a series of landmark treaties, many of which were negotiated under the auspices of UNEP ranging from the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer to ones covering trades in hazardous wastes, chemicals and biodiversity. But there is acknowledgement, backed by science, that despite all that has been achieved the scale of the response to environmental challenges has not kept pace with the velocity of environmental change. Many also acknowledge that UNEP still remains, in a sense, the custodian of hopes and dreams and ‘work in progress’ rather than the finished item. The focus now is on Rio+20, taking place in Brazil next June, 20 years after the Earth Summit of 1992. Two central themes have been chosen for Rio+20: one, “green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication” reflects the emerging consensus that an economic model able to serve the needs of seven billion people, rising to nine billion people, needs to factor in the multiple benefits of clean energy to sustainable transport and the real value of nature and natural resources in order to deliver growth and social outcomes including decent jobs for the young and the unemployed or under-employed. The other theme –“the institutional framework for sustainable development”– underlines the urgency to reform the international architecture within which UNEP sits, in order to scale-up and accelerate delivery across a suite of sustainability challenges. Within this debate discussions are now taking place on a potential reform and strengthening of UNEP, including transforming it from a UN programme into an organization. The question is, would such a political investment in terms of effort and time, bear fruit? Would it empower the world’s environment ministers and entitle them to higher levels of authority and support? How would such an organization differ from the status quo in terms of federating a fresh and decisive response to the multiple challenges the world is facing? Would it merely be a grand but ultimately hollow political gesture to a planet and a people in peril?

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