Press Conference on United Nations Environment Programme Report

12 May 2011

Press Conference on United Nations Environment Programme Report

12 May 2011
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Press Conference on United Nations Environment Programme Report


At a press conference to launch a United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report entitled Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth, Programme Executive Director Achim Steiner said that, despite the “dramatic numbers” contained in the report, the picture painted for the future need not be bleak.

“When we talk about the notion of decoupling, it is not that it needs to be invented,” Mr. Steiner said today at headquarters.  “But that it needs to be scaled up.  We know it is possible; the question is how to move it forward faster.  This is not so complicated and can happen very quickly.”

Also participating in the panel were United Nations Human Settlements Program Executive Director Joan Clos, International Panel for Sustainable Resource Management Co-Chair Ashok Khosla, and one of the report’s two lead authors Mark Swilling.

Pointing to past successes in the efforts to mobilize the international community around environmental matters, such as the Montreal Protocol, Mr. Khosia said that such mobilization was needed on the issue of sustainable use of material resources.  The consumption of resources was now so great that it threatened ecological systems and processes, as well as the well-being of humankind.  In that light, he stressed the importance of establishing an international resource panel to examine materials usage.

“One of the most important allies needed is the media,” Mr. Khosia said, “to explain to constituencies, Governments, business and civil society just how important and urgent the issues are, and how devastating the consequences if they are not addressed immediately.

Report author Mark Willing presented a brief summary of key findings and conclusions of the report, which he said tackled the core issue of how to understand the global economy from the perspective of the resources required.

The most significant piece of quantitative information contained in the report, he said, was the eightfold growth in global material usage in the past century along with a 25-fold increase in gross domestic product (GDP) — meaning that GDP was growing faster than resource use.

He went on to say that the core concept of decoupling meant something very specific, although it was often misused in certain instances.  Ecological economics served to embed the economy within the environment, and separate the rate of economic growth from the rate of resource use.

“Resource prices over the last 100 years have steadily been coming down, which seems counterintuitive,” Mr. Swilling said, given that resource availability had dwindled.  This trend seemed headed for a permanent change, he said.

“Since the turn of the millennium, there’s been a turn towards rising resource prices, and economists say this is not an uptick, but a rising trend,” Mr. Swilling said.

Therefore, he said that it was fairly unlikely that stimulating demand through various mechanisms would have the kind of success anticipated to get out of the current recession.  Instead, investment in sustainability according to innovation would make most significant contribution to the transition to a green economy.

Mr. Clos said there was a strong link between decoupling and urbanization, which was a process by which humanity had been able to innovate on a previously unprecedented scale.  However, in the “western” world, there was a current decrease in city growth and an increase in “sprawl”, which created a greater demand for energy consumption.  This needed to be addressed in the near future, as the sprawl of increasingly rich societies was perceived as an increase in their quality of life, but in fact consumed more resources.

Another big challenge was how to support the developing world’s right to develop, while doing so in a way that was sound.  It would be necessary to increase the equalization of energy usage globally, which for some segments of the population would entail a sizable change in habits and mentality.

When asked for a concrete example of decoupling, Mr. Swilling said many alternatives were emerging for cement, which was one of the most used resources and used a lot of energy to produce.  Many alternatives could reduce the energy used in traditional cement production by up to 80 per cent, which would demonstrate the kind of decoupling that was needed.

Another correspondent asked about the scientific vetting processes put in place, and pointed to a “scandal” over inaccuracies found in a previous UNEP report on large marine ecosystems.  In response, Mr. Steiner stressed that science was, by nature, not unassailable and did not assume perfect knowledge.  Finding inaccuracies in a report were only scandalous if the scientists were claiming perfect knowledge, which they did not do.  While there were some genuine errors, which were regrettable, such complex discussions were part if the natural process of inquiry.  It was important to at least take precautionary steps when human management of sufficient risks suggested it, even though this would always mean working from an imperfect knowledge base.

While a perfect analysis could not always be provided, he said “this is not a reason to not put knowledge forth.”

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.