A Stronger Conscience

OUR PLANET 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward

A Stronger Conscience


welcomes UNEP's increasing recovery and points to priority areas where its contribution is crucial

It is sobering, as we stand on the threshold of the millennium, that it is only in the last 50 years since the birth of the United Nations, that humankind has managed to create an organization that has, at its root, the simple aim of helping the planet, its wildlife and biodiversity, rather than those who seek to have mastery over it.

Whether we survive as a species will depend on whether we accept the early warnings now all too manifest of ecological and environmental disaster, or ignore them and face a race against time to repair the damage caused by short-sighted political expediency. The United Nations, and through it UNEP, has a vital role to play in bridging that gap through education and understanding.

As UNEP's mission statement says: 'To provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment by inspiring, informing and enabling nations and people to improve their quality of life without compromising that of future generations.'

And so as we contemplate the last 2,000 years and look forward to the next 1,000, it is opportune to put UNEP's brief existence into perspective. Ideals are not created overnight, they evolve.

working people

No easy task

UNEP was built on the Stockholm Conference of 1972; it has had a mere 27 years of trying to forge agreement, understanding and cooperation between diverse states, their people and their beliefs. It has been the environmental conscience of the United Nations.

If it has, at times, stumbled during its comparatively short life, it is only to be expected. What it set out to do was never going to be easy. It has gone through a difficult time in the last few years, but I believe the changes it has made will make it all the stronger and better able to handle difficult situations in the coming years.

World Environment Day is therefore an ideal opportunity both to review what we have achieved so far and to look forward to what we can accomplish in the future.

The United Kingdom has long supported UNEP to fulfil its role, on the global environment, as the voice within the United Nations system.

I am also pleased to see the support that Klaus Toepfer gave to the United Kingdom's recent Budget when he said it 'put the green agenda at the heart of government'.

I believe the United Kingdom's budget put the principles of sustainable development into action. It was about discouraging the emission of greenhouse gases and penalizing waste, at the same time as creating jobs and increasing efficiency. For example, proceeds from the climate change levy will be ploughed back into businesses, jobs and help with energy efficiency. We have shown that environmental taxes are not merely about raising revenue - they are also about changing behaviour and improving the quality of life and the environment.


Gaining ground

The 20th Governing Council, held in Nairobi in February this year, marked an important step forward for UNEP. The Nairobi Declaration set out a clear focus for UNEP's work, and the practical implementation of this statement of intent will be a major mark of UNEP's progress in becoming a powerful global player in the 21st century. I believe this process of reform has helped UNEP to recognize what its challenges are and what role it can best play. I hope the decisions we agreed in February can be taken forward as soon as possible. In particular I hope that the Environment Management Group will be a force for environmental integration throughout the United Nations system. I strongly support the recommendation to involve civil society more closely in our deliberations. This is an approach that has been a particularly successful achievement of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) and a way of working which the United Kingdom very much endorses.

The new approach that connects the programme to the Nairobi Declaration is a real advance. Its programme of work is now focused more broadly along the right lines with priorities geared towards those areas where UNEP can make the biggest contribution and have the most powerful impact. It has already done excellent work in areas such as chemicals, oceans, environmental law and biotechnology.

Key to stability

But change and reform are never easy. They require difficult decisions and hard work if they are to be successfully implemented.

I am sure other members of UNEP agree with me that the key to UNEP's long-term stability is having adequate, stable and predictable financial resources, especially through the Environment Fund. The budget line was a clear measure of support for the way in which Klaus Toepfer is taking the organization.

As a measure of the United Kingdom's commitment to UNEP it was a pleasure to announce that we shall be maintaining its level of support, around £4.5 million ($7 million). But I do have to say this decision was not an easy one. The message of support has a 'health warning' attached. UNEP's financial management still needs considerable improvement. Member states need concise and clear advice on the budget if they are to be expected to continue to provide financial support. However, I was also able to announce a further contribution of £95,000 ($150,000) towards spares and the transmission of spares for the Mercure satellite communication system.

The inclusion of trade and environment in the environmental policy aspects of UNEP's programme is one I welcome. The operational challenge now facing UNEP is to act upon the growing political recognition that the difference between trade and environment is no longer marginal and neither is it a technical issue. It is, in fact, at the centre of the policy arena.

If it is decided at this year's World Trade Organization (WTO) Ministerial meeting in Seattle that there will be a comprehensive Millennium Trade Round, the relationship between trade and the environment will need to be addressed in future negotiations.

A key area in which UNEP is currently committed to undertaking innovative work is the development of a tool box for assessing the environmental aspects of trade liberalization. As we stand on the brink of a possible new trade round, I believe it is crucial that UNEP plays its part in laying down the framework and the criteria to ensure that the environment is fully and comprehensively safeguarded.

As the principle United Nations environment body, UNEP is well placed to make a vital and substantive contribution to the debate within the CSD. It has already done some good work in preparing for this year's meeting of the CSD on issues such as oceans, sustainable tourism, small island developing states and sustainable consumption and production. It now needs to follow this work up by providing short and well-focused documents that concentrate on the environmental aspects of sustainable development.

Earlier this year our Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, saw at first hand the effect climate change is having on coral reefs when he visited the Maldives. This year's meeting of the CSD will provide us with the opportunity of agreeing global action to protect our ocean heritage.

The sustainable use of our oceans into the 21st century is crucial to both protecting the global environment and combating world poverty. This is an area in which UNEP has developed a good deal of expertise through its Regional Seas Programme - which the United Kingdom strongly supports. We have recently contributed £165,000 ($264,000) towards this programme.

I believe there is an opportunity for UNEP to be a much more effective force for action on ocean management in providing scientific advice and enabling regional partners to work together on management cooperation and to implement existing agreements.

I would also like to see UNEP continuing its important work on voluntary initiatives and codes of conduct for a sustainable tourism industry. Tourism is one of the fastest growing industries in the world and presents a real challenge for sustainable development, involving as it does social and economic as well as environmental impacts.

Defining roles

There is no doubt that UNEP has a major role to play and I believe that we have made considerable progress towards defining that role and equipping UNEP to fulfil it. We are heading in the right direction in many key areas including financial management, administration and the focus of the work programme.

We need to take advantage of the positive atmosphere evident at the Governing Council and the clear direction that emerged from that meeting to ensure that UNEP is a vital and relevant organization into the 21st century.

The Rt. Hon. Michael Meacher MP is Minister for the Environment, United Kingdom.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Climate and Action 1998
Fred Pearce: Coral grief (Small Islands) 1999
Tony Blair: Opportunity, not obstacle (Climate & Action) 1998
John Prescott: Seven Threats to the Seven Seas (Oceans) 1998
Robin Cook: Everything to gain (Climate Change) 1997
John Gummer: Valuing the environment (Culture, Values and the Environment) 1996

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