Spirit of optimism

OUR PLANET 10.2 - UNEP - Looking Forward

Spirit of optimism


says that UNEP's decline has been reversed and that he expects it to play a central role in a strong institutional framework for environmental protection

At the end of the 20th century, environmental problems are increasingly being recognized as one of the central challenges on the political agenda. It has become clear that environmental problems do not respect national borders. This applies in particular to the threat to the Earth's atmosphere, the depletion of biodiversity, the degradation of oceans, as well as to the destruction of forests, the degradation of land resources and the depletion and pollution of freshwater resources. Environmental problems also have an impact on public health and economic development, in the short term and in the medium and long terms. They increasingly pose a threat to peace and security. International partnership in environment and development policy is needed to overcome the growing transboundary problems at both a regional and global level.

One fundamental prerequisite for a successful international environmental policy is responsible action by all actors involved, at national and local levels. For this purpose, Agenda 21, adopted in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, emphasizes the common responsibilities of industrialized countries and developing countries in implementing the model of sustainable development, differentiated in accordance with their respective capabilities.

Another equally important prerequisite for sustainable development on a worldwide scale is a functioning system of international institutions. UNEP, being the only United Nations institution dealing exclusively with environmental policy, plays a central role in this regard. Only if UNEP fulfils its role as an advocate of the environment and coordinates the multitude of environmental protection activities undertaken by numerous United Nations institutions can the scarce funds be allocated efficiently and effectively, thus allowing the common goal of improving the global environmental situation to be achieved.

Having existed for more than 25 years now, UNEP has to a certain extent become a victim of its own success. Ever since the 1972 Stockholm Conference, and particularly since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in Rio in 1992, the activities undertaken by United Nations institutions, financial institutions and other international organizations in the environmental field have multiplied. As a result, there has been a great deal of duplication and inefficiency, affecting both UNEP's role and prestige. This situation was compounded by both structural and administrative problems within UNEP. One consequence of these problems, as well as of the fragmentation of competencies and activities, has been a marked decrease in financial resources throughout the 1990s.

However, it now appears that the trend has been reversed. This reversal was initiated by the Nairobi Declaration adopted at the 19th session of the UNEP Governing Council in 1997. In spring 1998, the new Executive Director, Klaus Toepfer, took office, and soon won the confidence of UNEP staff, environmental organizations and governments alike. At the special session of the Governing Council held in 1998 and at the 20th session in 1999, there was a distinct spirit of optimism. Toepfer has initiated a reform process focusing on both the programme's areas of concentration and its internal structure and management. Further key decisions will have to be reached as part of a reform of the United Nations in the field of environmental policy. The proposals put forward by a Task Force chaired by Toepfer last year represent a sound basis for such a reform. In February 1999, the environment ministers meeting at the 20th session of the UNEP Governing Council expressly welcomed the proposals as well as the report based on these proposals by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, thus sending out a positive signal concerning the issue of reform to the General Assembly in New York. I hope that specific measures can be taken soon.

people in river

Central requirements

What we need at the beginning of the 21st century is an institutional structure within which UNEP can be heard as the voice of the environment. Since there have been demands for many years for the environmental aspect to be integrated into all areas of policy, the fact that there is a great diversity of actors in the field of environmental policy is to be welcomed. There is no need to centralize these activities; they should, however, be coordinated. UNEP will only be able to fulfil its important role if a number of central requirements are met. Unfortunately, this has only been the case to a limited extent so far. As a first step, UNEP's mandate has been more clearly defined by the Nairobi Declaration. As a second step, UNEP's structure and management is currently undergoing a process of modernization. A third and essential step must be to broaden the financial basis by ensuring reliable and punctual payment of contributions by as many member states as possible.

The areas of concentration for UNEP and a working programme for the next few years based on them were presented by the Executive Director at the Council sessions of 1998 and 1999:

- Strengthening the disaster prevention and emergency response capacity of UNEP, as well as its early warning and assessment functions.

- Coordination and development of environmental policy instruments in the following fields: support for conventions; chemicals; development of economic instruments for implementing international environmental agreements.

- Freshwater.

- Technology transfer and industry.

- Support to Africa.

Toepfer has the full support of member states with regard to these areas of concentration and his strategy to adapt UNEP's organizational structure to them.

In general terms, I believe UNEP will be facing a number of central challenges at the beginning of the 21st century. One of its tasks will be to identify regional and global environmental problems and trends at an early stage, and to bring them to the attention of the international community. Its expertise and capacities in the field of environmental monitoring and assessment will be highly beneficial in this context. In addition, partnerships are needed with scientific institutions and national governments. The Global Environment Outlook reports are excellent examples of UNEP's capabilities in this field. One of their main merits is that they include recommendations for political response measures in their analysis, rather than confining themselves to a mere description of existing environmental problems.

dry land

Impetus and support

UNEP's work in the field of environmental monitoring and assessment must therefore aim at offering solutions to existing problems. And while UNEP itself cannot be expected to solve the problems, it should be able to give impetus to the problem-solving process and, if necessary, be in a position to provide support for the actors involved. Suitable instruments in this regard include the provision of relevant knowledge and support in capacity building, for example through environmental education and training.

UNEP can look back on great achievements in advancing international environmental law. The latest highlight in a long list of conventions and agreements adopted at the initiative of, or with the support of UNEP is the Rotterdam Convention for the Application of the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade. Negotiations on a regime for persistent organic pollutants are already under way. UNEP will continue its intensive work for advancing international environmental law and providing support for its implementation. In this context, UNEP should not only be made use of for its expertise but above all for its capacity to initiate and facilitate processes and to provide a forum for environment ministers and environmental experts.

UNEP's agenda must reflect the consequences for international environmental policy of worldwide trends such as globalization and economic liberalization, as well as the resulting need for an ecological framework. The 20th session of the Governing Council confirmed UNEP's important role in the field of environment and trade and called on the Executive Director to strengthen cooperation with the World Trade Organization and other institutions.

However, UNEP's most difficult task will remain coordinating environmental activities - including those of the conventions' secretariats - within the United Nations system. Being a relatively small institution with a modest budget, UNEP will have to pursue a wide variety of strategies to fulfil this role. It must be innovative and become a leading voice, while forging strong institutional partnerships. And it will have to actively advocate viable coordination mechanisms within the United Nations system. In all these efforts, UNEP will also need the support of national governments. By adopting a decision on the report of the Toepfer Task Force at the 20th session of the Governing Council, the governments made it clear that they are willing to provide UNEP with the necessary political support. I hope that this is followed by an increased financial commitment.

The world has changed since the creation of UNEP in 1972. UNEP itself has undoubtedly contributed to this process. People have become aware of environmental problems and the importance of environmental protection as an element of sustainable development. Many problems we were faced with in the 1970s have been solved or are closer to being solved. Nevertheless, UNEP has not become superfluous. On the contrary, a strengthened UNEP is needed to tackle the new challenges of our time.

Jürgen Trittin is Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety, Germany.

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on The Way Ahead 1997
Maurice F. Strong: The way ahead (UNEP 25) 1997
Mostafa K. Tolba: Redefining UNEP (UNEP 25) 1997

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