With ‘Poor’ Environmental Scorecard, World on ‘Dangerous Trajectory’, Deputy Secretary-General Warns 2012 Conference on State of Planet

12 October 2012

With ‘Poor’ Environmental Scorecard, World on ‘Dangerous Trajectory’, Deputy Secretary-General Warns 2012 Conference on State of Planet

12 October 2012
Deputy Secretary-General
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

With ‘Poor’ Environmental Scorecard, World on ‘Dangerous Trajectory’,


Deputy Secretary-General Warns 2012 Conference on State of Planet


‘Now Is the Time to Act,’ Jan Eliasson Says, Outlines Strategy Based

On Equity, Sustainable Development, Human Rights; Placing People, Planet First

Following are Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson’s remarks to the State of the Planet 2012 Conference, at Columbia University, in New York on 11 October:

Thank you for inviting me to this important conference on the State of the Planet.  I am delighted to be back so soon to Columbia University and to the Earth Institute and with you, Jeff, after helping to launch the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (22 September).

Today I would like to talk about why we need solutions — now — and what kind of solutions we need; as well as to give emphasis to the sustainability and environmental dimensions of the post-2015 development agenda.

First, the answers to the “why”.  Earlier this year, on the eve of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), headed by Achim Steiner, released its fifth Global Environment Outlook report GEO-5.

This is the UN’s flagship environmental assessment.  It is comprehensive.  It is authoritative.  And it is sobering.  GEO-5 looked at 90 of the internationally agreed environmental goals of the past two decades and found that significant progress had been made in only 4 — that’s right, 4 out of 90.

These are:  eliminating the production and use of substances that deplete the ozone layer; removing lead from fuel; increasing access to improved water supplies; and boosting research to reduce pollution of the marine environment.

Some progress was shown in 40 goals, including the expansion of protected areas and efforts to reduce deforestation.  Little or no progress was detected for 24 of these goals.  Further deterioration was recorded for eight goals — including the state of the world’s coral reefs.  No assessment was made of 14 other goals due to a lack of data.

The world failed to reach the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of significantly reducing the rate of biodiversity loss by 2010.  Fish stocks have significantly declined in the last two decades — mostly due to unsustainable commercial fishing.  And, despite the encouraging increase in access to improved water sources, water quality in most major river systems still fails to meet basic World Health Organization standards.

By 2015 — the MDG deadline — more than 600 million people will lack access to improved sources of drinking water.  More than 2.5 billion people will lack access to basic sanitation.

Unsafe water and the lack of sanitation are the reason 3,000 children under the age of 5 die every day of dehydration or diarrhoeal diseases.  These diseases are also a major cause of childhood malnutrition.

GEO-5 also highlighted the lack of progress on combating desertification and droughts and tackling the causes of climate change.  More than 1 billion of the world’s most poor and vulnerable people inhabit the world’s arid lands.

More frequent and more intense periods of drought test their resilience to the limit.  We saw the consequences last year in the Horn of Africa.  We see it now in the Sahel where a humanitarian crisis is affecting 18 million people.

Almost three quarters of range-lands worldwide show symptoms of desertification.  And over the past 40 years, nearly one third of cropland has become unproductive, often ending up abandoned.  Further, one third of the world’s population lives in countries with moderate to high water stress.  As the impact of climate change increases, so too will the prospects of growing water stress.

The evidence of climate change is now obvious.  We have seen another record year for wildfires, droughts and flooding.  Last month was the 330th consecutive month with a global temperature above historic average — an undeniable three-decade trend.  Carbon emissions are the highest ever.  Arctic ice cover is at a historic low.

The ice is now so thin that scientists are concerned that the North Pole may soon be ice-free in summer.  This is not only affecting regional and global weather conditions.  It is threatening what scientists call a feedback loop.  White ice reflects the sun.  Dark water doesn’t — it absorbs the warmth.  Another such loop is possible if the Siberian and Alaskan permafrost continues to thaw, releasing its stored methane.  Methane is, as you know, a far more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Runaway climate change is a manifest risk.  Let me pause here.  I think I have made my point.  We are on a dangerous trajectory.  The vulnerable will suffer first and worst — people living on the desert margins; slum residents, especially in coastal cities; inhabitants of flood-plains and low-lying islands; some 3 billion pastoralists, farmers and fishing communities who depend on a declining ecosystem; and all who are too poor to withstand the food price shocks caused by environmental decline and extreme weather.

But the decline of the state of the planet is not just an issue for the poor.  Everyone is vulnerable.  It is obvious that we need to make a transition to truly sustainable development — to take the momentum of Rio+20 and build on it on all levels and by all concerned and affected.  Nobody can do everything but everybody can do something.

Our ecological footprint has overstepped the planetary boundary.  There is no Plan B — because there is no Planet B.  This brings me to my second question: the “what kind of solutions”.  And where will we find them?

After this introduction, you may be feeling justifiably daunted by the scale of the challenge.  I hope the second half of my speech will raise your spirits somewhat.

Let me return to where I started — the UNEP GEO-5 report.  One of the four areas where it found significant progress was in the elimination of ozone-depleting substances.  Here is a strong parallel with climate change — not least because many ozone-depleting substances are also greenhouse gases.

We have actively addressed the ozone problem, and so, we could take the same approach for climate change.  The international community has proven, through the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, that it can successfully tackle such a challenge.

Scientists identified an urgent problem.  Governments agreed on a legally binding approach to address it.  Funding was made available for developing countries to phase out polluting technologies.  The private sector was engaged.  The benefits have far exceeded the costs.  A catastrophe was averted.

The phase-out of leaded fuel tells a similar story – a public-private partnership for the common good.

The lesson is:  when we have political will and internationally agreed goals with specific, measurable targets, we can achieve real results.  We see this, too, with the Millennium Development Goals — even though their success is mixed.  Twenty years ago, when world leaders met in Rio de Janeiro, 5.5 billion people inhabited our planet.  Nearly half were living in extreme poverty.  Today, with the global population exceeding 7 billion, the proportion is down to just over one quarter.

Over the same period, food production has kept pace, so much so that, were it distributed adequately, there would be enough to feed every person on Earth.  Hunger is basically an issue of equity, not of shortage.

This point goes to the heart of our strategy for the coming years.  Our first task is to fulfil the promise of the MDGs by 2015.  We have three years three months to go.

Second, we need a strategy for the post-2015 period that builds on the MDG platform; a strategy that completes unfinished business so that we can live in a world without poverty and deaths from preventable disease.  A strategy centred on equity — on sustainable development and human rights — on placing people and the planet first.

That process is now under way.  The Secretary-General has established a high-level panel, co-chaired by the Presidents of Indonesia and Liberia and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, to make recommendations for a post-2015 development agenda.  Later you will meet my friend and colleague, Ms. Amina Mohammed, ASG at the UN and a member of the Panel.

In parallel, Member States of the United Nations are soon going to work to outline a set of Sustainable Development Goals or targets on the basis of the Rio+20 conclusions.

Over the coming year or so I hope these two tracks will converge to provide a clear set of ambitious but feasible goals or targets that will give hope and inspiration for the next generation of development efforts on both the international, national and local level.

This is a difficult but a hugely important task — one that the UN takes very seriously.  Apart from clear targets, we need effective cooperation and partnerships to achieve them.  When we have broad partnerships for development we achieve concrete results, as the MDG work has shown.

The Secretary-General and I are very encouraged by the prospects for deeper UN cooperation with the World Bank under its new President, Jim Yong Kim.  Regional organizations, Governments, civil society, the private sector and academia are other important actors.

One such partner is the Sustainable Development Solutions Network launched here in September.  We look forward to the ideas it will generate and the best practices it will highlight.

Over the past five years, the Secretary-General has used his convening power to bring to the table all players and map out global priorities on global health issues.  The Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child initiative has secured billions of dollars in new funding.

The Special Envoy for Malaria has applied a results-oriented model that has led to bednets for 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa.  Nearly a million lives may have been saved and we can now hope for an end to malaria deaths by 2015.

Partnerships will also be central to providing sustainable energy for all.  Sustainable energy is the golden thread that links development, social inclusion and environmental protection — including our efforts to address climate change.  More than 60 developing countries are now working with the Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, along with development banks, business, and civil society.

The same multi-stakeholder approach is set to drastically reduce hunger.  At Rio+20, the Secretary-General launched the Zero Hunger Challenge to eliminate hunger in our lifetime by helping farmers, by enabling every household to afford safe and nutritious food — and by ensuring that the poor can count on social protection.

While we are reaching out as never before to new partners and constituencies, we are also strengthening the ability of UN entities themselves to collaborate.  UN agencies, funds and programmes bring formidable experience, expertise and capacities to the table.  The partnership picture is not complete without those capacities being used to the fullest.

There is a third and best lesson to be drawn from the MDG experience.  We need peace.  There can be no sustainable future if there is no sustainable peace.  No conflict-affected country has achieved even one of the MDGs.  That is why one of the pillars of the Secretary-General’s five-year strategy is to focus on fragile countries and those emerging from conflict.  1.5 billion people live in such countries.

The message of the 2005 World Summit is as true today as ever:  there can be no peace without development; no development without peace; and neither without human rights.  Democracy and good governance, conflict prevention, and resolution, as well as the commitment of all UN Member States to prevent fragile countries re-lapsing — these are all essential tools for bringing us to the future we want and the peoples of the world deserve.

Rule of law is integral to all three pillars of the UN’s work — peace and security, human rights and not least, development.  This was one of the core messages sent by Member States at the 24 September High-Level Meeting of the UN General Assembly on the Rule of Law.  This Meeting produced a Declaration that marks a very important step forward in embedding the rule of law more deeply in our work.

The rule of law encompasses issues like land and property rights, and protection of the environment and natural resources.  It touches on the right to food and the right to water.

And, of course, there is an ample collective body of binding environmental agreements endorsed by world leaders.  Adherence to these agreements is part of the road forward we are discussing here today.

In closing, our environmental scorecard so far is poor.  We have promised much and delivered too little.   Rio+20 emphasized the scale and the urgency of the challenges of sustainable development.  But it also highlighted that we have the tools we need — from treaties to technology, from programmes to partnerships, from broad public support to the potential of a new communication world, reaching out to the next generation.

We have wasted too much time, too many opportunities.  But is not too late.  Now is the time to act.  If we use all the tools at our disposal — clear targets and effective cooperation which will deliver sustainable development solutions — we can eradicate poverty, we can promote shared prosperity and we can preserve a healthy planet that can support the well-being of future generations.

That is our goal.  We will count on your ideas and ideals, your energy and your active participation.

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