The Way Ahead Editorial

Our Planet - The Way Ahead



United Nations Under-Secretary General
and Executive Director, UNEP


The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) was to be the doorway to a new era. An era of greater concern for the growing vulnerability of planet Earth to accelerating environmental degradation as well as an era of growing equity among nations and between generations. The new laws, principles and goals set forth in Rio were to lay the foundation for a new green world order.

Five years have passed since we initiated this conscious and cooperative venture to manage Earth's natural resources rationally. Yet, five years later, we are confronted with indisputable evidence that the struggle to keep our planet habitable is at a crucial juncture. UNEP's recently released Global Environment Outlook report reveals that, even as our technical ability grows, there is a steady and seemingly inexorable deterioration of our environment.

Failure to deal with environmental problems is not an acceptable option for the nations of the world. The stakes are much too high and threats to the future of life on Earth have reached a magnitude that cannot be ignored.

This year, as we mark UNEP's 25th anniversary, assess progress in the post-Rio period, and chart the way ahead, the time is right to consider how UNEP can best be equipped and empowered to realize its potential as the voice of the environment for the United Nations. What kind of international organization is needed on the margin of the millennium, at a time of blurring sovereignty, blending technological change, integrated economies, and growing alienation between political processes and people's passions?

UNEP must become a true world environmental authority, not only promoting international collaboration and joint action, but bringing coherence to an increasingly fragmented system of environmental laws and secretariats, setting norms and standards and effectively promoting compliance. The Nairobi Declaration and the related Governing Council decision on providing a forum for the world's environment ministers within UNEP's structure of governance, begin the necessary transformation.

The occasion of a special session of the General Assembly reinforces the willingness of the global community to examine what progress has been achieved since UNCED. In addition, the international community must establish priorities for the period ahead. A global strategy on energy, reinvigoration of action on fresh water, continued momentum on oceans and an examination of new and emerging issues such as tourism, may help advance sustainable development. UNEP has made major contributions to the implementation of Agenda 21 and will continue to alert the world to emerging issues, setting the global environmental agenda and promoting coherent implementation of the environmental dimension of sustainable development.

The business of the United Nations is largely perceived as the province of intergovernmental interplay, governed by its own dynamics and largely insulated from the public eye. If there is one central lesson that should be learned after 50 years of its functions, it is that the United Nations' business is everyone's business. Its conduct and culture should not be exclusively conditioned by the nexus of diplomacy and bureaucracy. We must reach out and find innovative ways to change attitudes and behaviour, to inform and educate and encourage the indispensable contribution of civil society and its major groups.

During World Environment Day celebrations in Seoul, Republic of Korea, the Seoul Declaration on Environmental Ethics will be signed. Long before the modern environmental ethic had taken shape in the industrialized North, Asian environmental values had emphasized the wholeness of society and nature. This is a model for inspiration. The reciprocity in human relations, and the foundations of equity on which it alone can be built, can lead us to success in our quest for conserving the environment. Thoughtful and dedicated citizens hold the real promise of realizing the stated intentions of intergovernmental processes. The coincidence of this year's special session of the United Nations General Assembly and the celebration of World Environment Day in Seoul, Republic of Korea, could make that opportunity abundantly clear.

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