Building Consensus Key to Global Protection in 2002

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 1, 2002 (ENS) - The top United Nations environmental official is calling for a speedy ratification of the Kyoto climate protocol before September.

"It is a new beginning," declared Klaus Toepfer, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the UN agency responsible for securing a cleaner, healthier and less polluted world.

"I call on nations to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which is at the center of the new agreements, before the World Summit on Sustainable Development," Toepfer said.

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UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer (Photo courtesy UNEP)
Under the Kyoto Protocol, an addition to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, 38 industrialized nations have agreed to cut their emissions of six greenhouse gases linked to global warming. Thirty-nine were to have been governed by the original agreement signed in Kyoto, Japan in December 1997, but the Bush administration in March, 2001 said that the United States would not ratify the treaty.

The Kyoto Protocol will not take effect until it is ratified by 55 percent of the nations responsible for at least 55 percent of the total carbon dioxide emissions for 1990. They must reduce emissions of carbon dioxide to an average of 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during the five year period 2008 to 2012.

The emissions of developing nations such as China, India and Brazil will be controlled by subsequent negotiations under the climate treaty.

"The United Nations, and UNEP as one of its key institutions, has many roles and one of these is consensus building among seemingly opposed groups," Toepfer said. "Indeed the need to build agreements, understanding and solidarity is arguably even more vital in this new millennium as globalization of trade brings huge opportunities but also huge threats to nations, communities and cultures."

The coming year will be one of great challenges for the UN agency. In August and September, the crucial World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) is set for Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26 through September 4.

"Here," Toepfer explained, "countries, non-governmental organizations and industry will come together to chart a new course for the environment, for poverty alleviation and for sustainable development."

The delegates will assess humankind's progress towards sustainability in the 10 years since the UN 1992 Earth Summit. This meeting in Rio de Janeiro produced the benchmark Agenda 21, a plan of action for environmental restoration and protection.

The year 2002 is the International Year of Eco-Tourism, and also the International Year of the Mountains - both key issues on the United Nations Environment Programme's busy agenda.

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Sunrise over the Everglades (Photo by Richard Frear courtesy U.S. National Park Service)
There are many differing opinions on how to deliver a successful outcome from the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg. But Toepfer accepts the inevitability of conflicting views. "We are no strangers to controversy and many environmental issues can be characterized by strongly felt, polarized views. 2002 will be no different, he said. "Eco-tourism, for example, can rouse strong passions on both sides.

During the year 2001, UNEP claims some progress towards safeguarding the ecological resources of the planet.

In December, UNEP assisted African ministers in drafting a new and visionary declaration on water which will feed into the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD). The ministers, attending the International Conference on Freshwater in Bonn, Germany, put sanitation and reducing deaths from sewage contaminated water, at the center of their strategy.

An estimated 6,000 people a day, mainly children, die as a result of poor sanitation - the equivalent of a quarter of the population of a big city such as London.

In the past year, UNEP was active in Doha, Qatar, at the World Trade Organization talks in November. For the first time, trade ministers from over 140 countries accepted that globalization of trade and the reduction of trade barriers must take into account environmental issues and the development needs of some of the world's poorer countries.

In Doha, ministers also took some first, critical, steps towards reducing or phasing out so-called "perverse subsidies" in areas such as fisheries. Subsidies mounting to $15 billion a year distort trade, contribute to the decline and in some cases the collapse of fish stocks, and cause broader impacts on the marine environment.

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Mt. Everest, the world's tallest mountain. The year 2002 is the International Year of the Mountains (Photo credit unknown)
Throughout the past six months, UNEP has organized regional preparatory meetings in the run-up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development set for Johannesburg, South Africa from August 26 through September 4.

The regional meetings play a key role in crystallizing the views of governments, civil society, industry and other groups as they prepare for the upcoming environmental summit, Toepfer said.

UNEP chalked up a victory for 2001 when last May, nations signed the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The treaty is expected to lead to the phase out of the so called "Dirty Dozen," chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenols (PCBs) which are linked to a range of adverse impacts on humans and wildlife.

"There have been other notable successes in which UNEP has played its part," said Toepfer. "The successful climate change talks in Bonn, followed up in Marrakech, offer new hope for the planet and for developing countries, on continents like Africa, in particular."

"Industrialized nations have committed themselves to reduce emissions by 2010 by just over five percent," Toepfer explained.

"A variety of mechanisms and funds were also established which will allow industrialized nations to offset emissions at home by planting trees and developing clean and renewable energy projects in the developing world."

UNEP has launched a range of new initiatives which it will be taking forward in the coming year. The Great Apes Survival Project or GRASP is aimed at rescuing humankind's closest relatives from the brink of extinction. Almost $1.5 million has been raised by UNEP and its collaborators, which include key ape wildlife charities, such as Conservation International, the Born Free Foundation and the Ape Alliance.

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Chimpanzees in the Congo (Photo by Dave Morgan courtesy Wildlife Conservation Society)
Missions are under way to ape range states, where experts are evaluating the plight of chimpanzee, bonobo, orangutan and gorilla populations, while working with governments and local communities to devise ape protection and eco tourism projects aimed at saving apes and giving local people livelihoods.

One of UNEP's key roles is early warning and assessment. This year the agency held the first General Assembly of the Global International Waters Assessment where the plight of the Black Sea was highlighted.

It is just one of 66 oceans, seas and water bodies being assessed so that action plans can be drawn up to address environmental and economic degradation.

UNEP is also part of an unprecedented, scientific, assessment of the world's wildlife habitats under the banner of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment project.

In May 2002, the organization will publish the third of its ground-breaking Global Environment Outlook reports which will give governments attending the WSSD a clear picture of the state of the world's environment and a range of likely scenarios for the coming decades.

The International Coral Reef Action Network, launched in March and with $10 million from the United Nations Foundation, is developing strategies to conserve and promote sustainable management of reefs around the world.

Toepfer said the awarding of the 2001 Nobel Peace Prize to the United Nations and Secretary General Kofi Annan gives him and everyone at UNEP hope for the future. "We at UNEP are proud to be associated with this as the environment was mentioned as one of the reasons why the UN has been awarded this outstanding prize. It also a recognizes that, in this complicated and sometimes difficult world, the UN has never been more relevant and crucial for delivering peace and stability."