25 October 2007
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



While the world had spent 30 years debating whether global warming was in fact happening, the cost of climate change was growing ever higher, and a history of lost opportunity after lost opportunity was growing longer, correspondents heard today at a Headquarters press conference upon the launch of a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report.

Now the world needed to pay attention to a whole host of environmental concerns, said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, introducing the Programme’s report, entitled “Global Environment Outlook:  Environment for Development” (GEO-4).

The “GEO-4” report, as it is known, provides an updated assessment of the world’s atmosphere, land, water and biodiversity, 20 years after the issuance of the seminal report by the Brundtland Commission -- “Our Common Future”, which Mr. Steiner called the “previous peak” in environmental awareness and political discourse.

“We essentially step before the world today with a report that is, in essence, saying that in all the fundamental major challenges and trends that Brundtland identified 20 years ago, we have not turned the corner,” he said, adding, “That is an extremely sobering analysis.”

He was joined at the briefing by Olav Kjorven, Assistant Administrator and Director, Bureau for Development Policy, UNDP, and Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Millennium Development Goals.  Also on hand were a few of the report’s lead authors of the more than 390 experts who helped prepare the document and the more than a thousand people worldwide who peer-reviewed it.

Mr. Steiner explained that “GEO-4” was meant to provide further consolidated evidence, not only of individual locations and phenomena, but of the current system-wide view that a growing range of evidence existed that the world was coming to a brink where events were either uncontrollable or reversible only at high cost and effort.

Much of what the report said about that “brink” –- with the use of terms like “tipping points, thresholds, feedback mechanisms, collapsing ecosystems, and dead zones” to describe a host of documented phenomena -- was not that different from the assessment on global warming made by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), he added.

Calling the report “useful, scientifically robust and very sobering”, Mr. Kjorven said it pointed in the direction of priority environmental issues that had critical consequences to humanity’s well-being, and which “scream out for broad action”.

The report also emphasized the world’s growing vulnerability, Mr. Steiner said, adding that the phenomena it described were of such a magnitude and moving with such rapidity, that humanity and nature’s normal ability to adapt and adjust to changes were “simply being undermined”.

Mr. Sachs said that “GEO-4” was a tremendous intellectual accomplishment -- was comprehensive, scientific and completely cutting-edge and up to date.  “I hope it’s read in the White House, in Downing Street and in other places of leadership around the world because actually this is the main, true geopolitics of our age, not the geopolitics we sometimes hear,” he said.

“Sustainable development is at the very centre of the true geopolitics of the world,” Mr. Sachs said, adding that it determined the prospects for peace, economic viability and whether problems like climate change could be properly addressed.

The challenges were global in nature, and involved not just climate change, but deforestation, stresses on biodiversity through over-fishing, over-hunting, over-harvesting, and indoor and outdoor pollution, he said.

“We have multiple stressors and worldwide problems,” he said, adding, “No one should ever say this is about the poor.  This is about every place.”  Still, larger numbers of people died from these shocks in poorer countries.  Adverse climate shocks could also trigger war and conflict in those poorer places.

Globally, he continued, the world economy and population had grown so fast, that institutions lagged behind the ability to address the impact of society on the physical environment.  As a result, humanity was affecting things at a massive global scale with nothing in place to address the problems being faced for the first time in the history of the planet.  Agreements and treaties existed -- and were the repository of the world’s hopes –- and implementing them would be essential for global security.

Mr. Steiner said that the report was full of examples from around the world of why environmental crisis was not an inevitable path.  In particular, local efforts were making a difference.  Those showed that “with a focused, deliberate and politically intentional approach, you can actually change the circumstances that lead to the kinds of trends we point to here”, he said.

Responding to a question about the role of that environment, particularly water issues, played in conflict, he pointed out that, in the Middle East, countries sometimes collaborated in terms of water use even if there were no bilateral relations.

To a question about the use of clean coal, Mr. Kjorven said it would be a mistake to think that the solution was all about one thing.  “We have to have action on coal, but we have to have action in a whole series of other areas, in order to, in the sum total, make a difference,” he said, suggesting that that could be a hopeful scenario because there was something in the game for everyone.  One example was the role poor African countries could play if carbon-sequestration instruments were created.  “There’s something in this for all countries basically, and therein lies opportunities for economic development,” he said.

Looking forward, Mr. Kjorven said the world community’s will to act, which was growing daily, would be tested at the upcoming Bali conference on climate change.  A positive outcome of getting real negotiations started was within reach.  If that was achieved, it would be a great signal that the world stood a chance to fight, not only climate change, but also pressing global environmental concerns, such as those highlighted in the report.

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For information media • not an official record