UNEP chief calls for urgent action to tackle environment issues

"I think two messages are going to characterize the discussion about environment and sustainability in our time," said Achim Steiner, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), in a recent interview with Xinhua in London.

"One is urgency to act, and the other one is a message of hope and opportunity," he explained. While speaking of the actions, he addressed a campaign jointly initiated by Xinhua and UN agencies including UNEP to protect environment.


Steiner recalled the scientific evidences presented in Planet Under Pressure conference he attended here not long ago, which was organized by international scientific community in London in March, saying "The urgency to act is becoming more and more evident by the evidence we have."

In the atmosphere, more and more greenhouse gases are being emitted by human activities, causing global warming; in the ecosystem, the extinction of species and loss of biodiversity are at an alarming rate, going to a "tipping-point" as predicted by scientists; and in the environment around us, chemicals and hazard substances are not disposed probably, the accumulative impact of which is very negative on human health as well as ecosystem.

"So in UNEP, we do look perhaps at the issues of climate change, ecosystems, chemical substances and hazardous waste as three core areas," Steiner said.

The urgency to act on those problems is more significant at now because the United Nations is going to organize a meeting named UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in later June.

It is often called "Rio+20" to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio. Furthermore, it’s also the 40th anniversary of the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, after which UNEP and the World Environment Day were set up.

"If you compare the world in 2012 to 1992, or even 40 years ago at Stockholm conference in 1972," said Steiner, "then I have to tell you that the world is not in a better shape."

"The bad news is we have not turned the corner. We have not broken through those barriers you want to break through," Steiner said.

"Science in itself does not yet make things happen. We have to communicate science, we have to make sure that the public is aware that they are changing today the fundamental life supports on our planet," he said, stressing that "we need to bring the urgency to act to public attention, to make people aware of it."


However, we should not fear a dark scenario or doomsday scenario, according to Steiner. "The message of hope and opportunity is that, we live in a time, when we have science and technology, and also the economic resources, and education, to do things differently."

Take example of the increasingly frequent use of the word Anthropocene, which is a geologic chronological term coined to mark the evidence and extent of human activities that have had a significant impact on the Earth. Some pessimists say the impact is so negative that Anthropocene will end in 100 years, when human species will extinct as many others.

"You would have a very dark view of human intelligence and human instinct if you believe that," Steiner commented, "I believe in the extraordinary power of human ingenuity, of human intelligence, and human creativity, and solidarity."

"I think we are far from being a doomed species, I think we are a species that are struggling to learn and understand the lessons of what is happening around us quickly enough."

The interview took place in a room with energy-saving lights. Steiner pointed out: "We sit in a room where we need only one tenth of the electricity to produce the same amount of light as we did 10 years ago."

He praised China’s efforts as well as several other countries: "China today has become already the largest producer of electricity from wind power. Countries such as Germany, Spain, Portugal, and also Brazil, have a very much cleaner energy matrix than they did even 10 years ago."

In the issue of climate change, Steiner said though there were some setbacks in international negotiation, we still have made a lot of progress — "two steps forward and one step back," according to him.

"We are about to establish the Green Climate Fund which is the single largest new fund on the planet. Climate change is probably the single largest drive for economic transformation in the next 50 years on our planet," he said, stressing the implication of new jobs and economic opportunities.

"These are the kinds of things that hopefully will make people look at these issues not with fear, not with a risk version, but rather with a sense of opportunity and encouragement to become part of this."


Steiner thinks green economy is an essential solution for environment problems, because the problems are often deeply connected with poverty and economic issues.

For instance, some people still have to make a choice "between cutting a tree and having a meal for their families", and some people willing to be green "are punished because they have to pay more for their green electricity."

So if we can change the economic signals, then we can promote sustainable consumption and production in a green economy, Steiner said it’s exactly his expectation for Rio+20.

"I hope that in Rio we will make progress on understanding the role of green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication."

In that sense, he thinks Rio could be a "world economic summit", hoping the participants of the meeting could agree on a global system to enhance green economy.

Besides politicians and businessmen, other members of the global community could also make their own efforts. Steiner was in London to visit the environmental measures of 2012 Olympic Games, and he praised the "positive development" of increasingly important green criteria in the bidding process of recent Games from Beijing to London, and to Rio in 2016.

Media could also play an important role in the green economy by raising people’s awareness. Steiner addressed a campaign jointly initiated by Xinhua News Agency, UNEP, the Secretariat of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and Reuters, which just kicked off on this World Earth Day of April 22.

"Our cooperation with Xinhua is part of a global attempt to give people both confidence and hope, and also answers on how they can make a difference," Steiner said.

"We will reach out to millions of people, but not only with our messages, we would also get, from many different parts of the world, experiences that a different future is possible, that a green economy is not a theory, it has actually been invented in thousands of places, businesses, cities every day."

Steiner pointed out that the theme of this year’s World Environment Day on June 5 is "Green Economy: Does it include you?" Indeed, if everyone takes actions, the future Earth could be a much greener and better place.