Opinion: Political Will Marks UNEP's 30th Year

By Klaus Toepfer
Executive Director United Nations Environment Programme

NAIROBI, Kenya, January 2, 2002 (ENS) - We do not fully posses the telescope of time to know how the year 2002 will be viewed by future generations.

But it is my hope that, when the historians' pencils are sharpened to weigh the impact of the whirlwind of environment related meetings, conferences and summits, they may record that the second year of the new millennium and UNEP's 30th anniversary was a defining moment in the long march towards a more environmentally sound, sustainable, healthier and fairer world.


Klaus Toepfer is the executive director of the United Nations' top environmental agency, UNEP. (Photo courtesy UNEP)
It is too easy to view events such as the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg or the Finance for Development meeting in Monterrey, Mexico as just another round of high level nibbles, of political get togethers that are merely prolonging the agony of the planet and the poor.

I believe we have, as a result of the negotiations and agreements that have marked 2002 and culminating in the WSSD, witnessed some real stirrings of intent, some clear routes of progress that can transform the fine words of previous years and decades into real and genuine action.

The Plan of Implementation, and the many partnerships, agreed in South Africa has targets, and it has timetables on issues such as fisheries and wildlife to ones on drinking water and sanitation. It is already focusing the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) along with many other organizations and groups across the whole spectrum of society.

Indeed when environment ministers from across the globe meet at UNEP's headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, in early February, 2003, the WSSD Plan and the challenge of taking it forward, of delivering real and meaningful results, will be at the center of the talks, at the center of the decisions.


Klaus Toepfer at the WSSD in South Africa (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
At WSSD, financial commitments were made in support of the Plan of Implementation, partnerships and the Millennium Declaration goals in the areas of water and sanitation. These include $970 million from the United States, and some 21 water and sanitation related initiatives worth at least US$20 million.

Similarly, the Plan of Implementation commitment on energy access will be accompanied by financial commitments from the European Union of $700 million, the United States of $43 million, and 32 separate partnership initiatives worth up to US$26 million.

Optimism also comes from the decision by Canada to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. The eyes of the world are now on Russia to put its pen to this paper so it can come into force.

Meanwhile, the new spirit of cooperation, the new vision, espoused by African leaders and ministers in the guise of the New Partnership for African Development or NEPAD give us a new start for this most wondrous of continents, from where the human race took its first unsteady steps towards the diversity of civilizations and cultures we see today. Many African countries recognize that only through partnership with each other can a new dawn for this continent come.

There is also a real recognition that developed nations, committing funds to assist developing ones, need reassurance that the cash will be well and effectively spent.

WSSD may have been a milestone but should not be seen in isolation from events such as the Doha, Qatar, trade talks and the Monterrey, Mexico Finance for Development meeting. I am also particularly delighted over the outcome of our Global Judges Symposium held just prior to the Summit. Strengthening the use, development and awareness of such laws is one of the keys needed to unlock the environment for development agenda.

The International Year of the Mountains, ending in the summit in Bishkek where funds were pledged to clean up old nuclear dumps in Central Asia, was, I believe, a success. The International Year of EcoTourism with its summit in Quebec, has given us some good pointers as to how we can match the modern enthusiasm for tourism and leisure with conserving nature and generating income for local people. However, we clearly need to urgently re-visit this issue to chart a more robust and effective course.


Klaus Toepfer at the CITES meeting in Chile in November 2002. (Photo courtesy Earth Negotiations Bulletin)
UNEP this year also published two landmark publications - the "Global Environment Outlook 3" and the "Africa Environment Outlook." These have not only contributed to our understanding of the threats and improvements humankind is creating for life on Earth, but also are building strong networks of researchers and centers in developing countries where environmental and developmental science is flourishing.

Working closely with the Global Environment Facility, the multi-billion dollar environment fund, we have launched important new projects on trying to restore damaged and degraded drylands in Africa to unraveling the mysteries of the humble organisms that populate and bring fertility to the soils of tropical countries.

We are also partners in the largest ever project undertaken to build the skills of developing nations in the area of genetically modified crops and foods.

At the Global Ministerial Environment Forum in Cartagena, Columbia, countries agreed a new, strengthened UNEP, and it is gratifying to see that our funding is on the rise from a wider group of nations. This is a vote for the environment and a vote for UNEP's improved ability to deliver. We have every intention to live up to our new and increasing responsibilities, not only in this 30th year of UNEP's birth but in the months, years and decades to come.

{Klaus Toepfer has served as executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) since February 1998. A former German environment minister, Toepfer believes that environment policy is the peace policy of the future.}