Klaus Toepfer
United Nations Under-Secretary
General and Executive Director, UNEP

Four times a month I stroll next door from my office in Nairobi to meet Secretary-General Kofi Annan and other senior members of the United Nations. We exchange views on pressing global issues ranging from Kosovo and human rights to global warming and water shortages.

Only a few years ago this would have necessitated time-consuming air travel. For while I am in Kenya, the other participants are scattered across the globe from New York to Geneva. But modern telecommunications – a major theme of this year’s international World Environment Day celebrations – is transforming the way the world works; and this includes the United Nations.

Positive signs
It also offers hope for reducing some of the great environmental threats of this new millennium. The boom in telecommunications, the Internet and the so called ‘new economy’ may be the beginning of a break with the pollution patterns of the past, helping us to grow economies without also increasing the amounts of carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere.

Kodak, the camera company, estimates that live videoconferencing – as in my monthly United Nations meetings – causes 99 per cent less global warming than travelling 1,000 kilometres by air for face-to-face talks. Similarly telecommuting, where people work from home using personal computers and electronic links, reduces the need to heat and light big offices and the amount of fuel burnt by staff driving to work. More than half the managers at AT&T, the telecoms company, telecommute one day a week, saving 80,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually from reduced travel. The International Data Corporation forecasts that home-based offices will grow from 12 million in 1997 to 30 million by 2002 in the United States alone. We are seeing similar patterns in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

New industry
Meanwhile the Internet is creating new kinds of businesses, less energy intensive than such traditional ones as steel or chemicals manufacturing. Buying a book online uses around 6 per cent of the energy normally involved in purchasing the latest best-seller from a shop, according to the US-based Center for Energy and Climate Solutions.

Clearly technology should never be seen as a silver bullet, tackling all the world’s environmental ills. Many people will need to travel physically to offices and factories for part if not all of their working lives. For many in the developing world the Internet remains science fiction.

Living too much in a ‘virtual world’ cannot be healthy either. We need to ‘Connect with the World Wide Web of Life’ – this year’s World Environment Day slogan – and see with our own eyes the beauty and the threats to the natural world as much as connect with the World Wide Web. Many important political agreements can only be secured by sitting down with the various parties and hammering out a deal over a drink, a sandwich or a United Nations conference table. There can also be dangers in placing too much faith in new technological developments: the future is another country full of surprises.

Improved transport
Sustainable transport is another crucial theme of this year’s World Environment Day. Emissions from cars, for example, add to global warming, carry health risks and dirty public buildings. The car needs to become our servant rather than our master. Lim Swee Say, Singapore’s Acting Minister for the Environment, tells us in this special edition of UNEP’s Our Planet how his country has managed to get 63 per cent of all journeys carried out by public transport and is aiming to increase this to 75 per cent.

At the beginning of this new millennium, we stand on a precipice with environmental degradation seemingly accelerating everywhere. But we have a great deal of knowledge about what needs to be done – and the technology and human ingenuity to bring abut real and lasting change. Let us, as individuals and communities, face the challenges and bring all our skills to bear not just on World Environment Day but in the days and decades to come


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century


Complementary articles in other issues:
Mostafa K. Tolba: Informal diplomacy (Hazardous waste) 1999
Klaus Toepfer: Cities: our common future (Human Settlements) 1996
Lim Swee Say: Commuting sustainably (Singapore) (Transport and Communications) 2001