Remarks by Achim Steiner to Brazilian Senate on World Environment Day 2012 Tue, Jun 5, 2012

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Photo Credit: gary yim /

Brasilia, 5 June 2012 - Honourable Senators,

thank you for inviting me to address the Environment and Foreign Affairs Commissions of the Brazilian Senate  on the occasion of World Environment Day 2012 under its theme Green Economy: Does it Include You?.

And on the eve of what the UN Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon has described as a 'one in a life time opportunity'-namely Rio+20 or the UN Conference on Sustainable Development 2012 taking place in Rio de Janeiro in only a few weeks' time.

For some I am sure Rio+20 may appear a distraction from the urgency of the day to day matters of state, of governing the country of Brazil with all its extraordinary challenges, choices and opportunities in the early 21st century?

For others it may engender a mixture of pragmatism and passion.

How to unite the diverse realities of Brazil - its social, environmental and economic challenges and yet its complementing forces for extraordinary creativity and positive change - in common cause as a metaphor for uniting nations in the common pursuit of a sustainable 21st century?

In April 2011, I had the honour to be invited to address an extraordinary session of the Brazilian Senate and Congress Environmental Commissions where I outlined the state of play and some of the options emerging around the Rio+20.

In many ways the world was just waking up to Rio+20 with the negotiations by member states and the contributions of civil society and companies only just getting underway.

They say a day is a long time in politics.

Well let me assure you that the past year has certainly been a long one in terms of multilateral discussions as nations have prepared for this month's gathering of some 130 heads of state and close to 190 countries.

It has, as you may imagine, been an intense period marked by the familiar brinkmanship and sometimes polarized positions designed often to test the nerve of others and their commitment to this and that issue.

Sometimes equally to paralyze a process that may seem complex, disruptive and against a perceived national interest in one country or another.

Yet it has also triggered intense debate and reflection on the world of the early 21st century and what one senses is a deep seated understanding and a deep centred belief by many that the old ways of operating are passing their sell by date.

In the past day or so, the final discussions closed at the UN headquarters in New York and perhaps we now have a clearer idea of expectations and likely outcomes on 22 June.

Perhaps I can elucidate where we are and also reflect on some areas in which Brazil may have a fundamental interest nationally and internationally in supporting, catalyzing and shepherding this process towards a positive outcome later this month.

Green Economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

Last year the Green Economy was in many ways being challenged by some as on the one hand merely the Emperor's new green clothes.

And on the other perhaps some kind of green Trojan Horse being wheeled by developed counties into developing ones as a way of erecting green trade barriers or eco-tariffs on goods and services.

We have come a long way from there-indeed most if not all nations have concluded that the pathways towards a low carbon, resource efficient Green Economy represent not an alternative Universe to realizing sustainable development.

But a way to achieve it within the context of their own national circumstances.

Indeed if we look at Continents and groupings of nations then it has been Africa and African Heads of State who have united behind these principles seeing in it the seeds of leap frogging the dirty, resource intensive development path of the North and a faster route out of poverty.

In Latin America, the Alba group of countries has been the most vocally opposed perceiving in the Green Economy the risk that nature will be commoditized and fall away from the hands of the citizens and communities who need it most, into the hands of the traders and bankers.

UNEP's interest has been to bring the invisibility of nature and the services provided by forests, freshwaters and other crucial ecosystems, into the visible spectrum of economic policy making.

It has been our and others intention to evolve a fresh understanding of central importance of the environment to the lives and livelihoods of communities and countries in order to tip the balance in favour of conservation, restoration and sustainable management as opposed to damage, degradation and over exploitation.

In other words, it is less about putting a price on nature and more about valuing it.

Today, as a result of deep discussions and engagement with those countries concerned we are confident that their position is far more supportive than perhaps it had been before.

Moreover, there is increasing confidence that pathways towards a Green Economy can not only grow economies while keeping humanity's footprint within planetary boundaries.

But overall will generate as many if not more jobs in areas from natural resource management to clean tech, high tech industries with lower pollution profiles.

Only last week the International Labour Organization, the trades unions and UNEP published an insight on its green jobs work.

The new report concludes that a transformation to a greener economy could generate 15 to 60 million additional jobs globally over the next two decades and lift tens of millions of workers out of poverty.

Given Brazil's wealth of natural and nature-based resources, and the efforts this country has put into protected areas and forestry management to waste management, sustainable biofuels and now policies encouraging technologies such as wind, a global Green Economy transition would seem to be a natural ally to Brazil's development path.

Institutional Framework

In respect to an Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development, the challenge is how to reform, equip and modernize the international organs and institutions of delivery to make them fit for the 21st century.

This debate, including how to modernize the institution I currently head - UNEP-has been slower to mature, but mature it finally has.

A year ago there were essentially two options on the table-to leave UNEP as it is or to elevate UNEP to a specialized agency along the lines of say the World Health Organization.

There was also concern among many member states as to why an upgrade was necessary in the first place-surely it was yet another tier of bureaucracy in a world crying out for less.

Honourable Senators,

What perhaps we have today in advance of Rio+20 is a sense that if the environmental pillar of sustainable development is to serve the social and the economic ones, the empowerment and an increased authority of the ministers responsible for the environment will be key.

A strengthened UNEP provides an opportunity to deliver that empowerment and increase that authority and influence.

The UNEP of today does not have universal membership-indeed its membership is less than 60 member states.

Many countries have accepted that this is an anomaly in need of correction.

The world spends a great deal of time, including in national parliaments, discussing, debating and negotiating international or multilateral environmental agreements.

But the implementation is often found wanting.

In short we have perhaps nearly all the instruments and machinery required to address hazardous waste shipments, climate change or threats to biodiversity-in other words to fulfill the environmental pillar of sustainable development in support of the other pillars and the sustainable development agenda agreed in Rio in 1992.

But after years spent on elegant designs and fine tuning, these vehicles towards a more sustainable future often gather dust or at best are taken out for a spin once a year at their annual meetings and then all too often popped back in the garage for another year.

A reformed and evolved international framework could provide some much needed urgency towards that implementation.

The options as we head into the final lap of Rio+20 range from boosting the UN's Economic and Social Council to perhaps transforming the Commission on Sustainable Development into a Council or Forum

In respect to the strengthening of UNEP, this has the support of all of Africa's Heads of State, the European Union as well as many countries in Asia, Latin America and the small island developing states.

This strengthening or upgrading may be towards a specialized agency or one still under the authority of the UN's General Assembly and there are other options.

If the Green Economy is in many ways the bottom up, the Institutional Framework is the top to which it can and perhaps must aim-again another reason why for Brazil this is an engaging issue given the policies in place to realize an inslusive Green Economy nationally.

Equally an issue that also speaks to Brazil's long standing commitment towards multilateralism and the need to reform the institutions and the UN organs of the 20th century to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st.

Honourable Senators,

In support of these two overarching themes, several so called 'big ticket' items are being put forward.

Some aimed at correcting some of the economic anomalies, if not absurdities that this century has inherited from the past.

Others quite bold and quite fresh in terms of forward-looking directions around which nations-rich and poor, developing and developed -can cooperate again within the context of their national circumstances.

Firstly let me mention the considerable discourse and analysis surrounding a new international indicator of progress-again I believe Brazil has a lot to say and a lot to gain from this issue.

We live in a world fascinated by GDP-if it goes up we are happy and if it goes down we all feel depressed.

Yet GDP, invented in the late 1930s, is a pretty poor indicator of human well-being, inclusive progress and sustainability as it excludes the ups and downs of natural resources, pollution and a range of social issues.

In the run up to Rio+20 and during the Summit various new indicators that have been incubating for many years will be on the table which need fostering and frank analysis through both a practical, political and legislative lens.

  • The work on Inclusive Wealth, which is based on the World Bank's Adjusted Net Saving indicator, is developing a more inclusive indicator of national wealth, covering not only produced capital, human capital, and natural capital, but also critical ecosystems -and through the UN a new Systems of Environmental and Economic Accounts has been proposed for use by member states.

Efforts are being made by a growing number of countries to apply such notions to real life economies.

Partha DasGupta, the Indian born economist based at Cambridge University in the UK, has looked at India.

In one study, Dasgupta has shown that against India's per capita GDP growth of 2.96 per cent annually since the 1970s is more like 0.31 per cent if environmental costs including deforestation are taken into account.

A report by the Chinese government and international experts on economic costs and human health impacts of environmental pollution estimates that the combined health and non-health cost of outdoor air and water pollution for China's economy comes to around $US100 billion a year (or about 5.8% of the country's GDP)

  • air pollution, especially in large cities, is leading to higher incidences of lung diseases, including cancer, respiratory system problems and therefore higher levels of work and school absenteeism
  • water pollution is also causing growing levels of cancer and diarrhea particularly in children under-5
  • water pollution is further exacerbating China's severe water scarcity problems, bringing the overall cost of water scarcity to about 1% of GDP.

A report by Deloitte Tousche Tohmatsu and the World Economic Forum presents the concept of a Genuine Progress Indicator or GPI which factors environmental and social factors into its mix.

It cites the United States concluding that while GDP has shown steady growth since the 1970s, measured by the GPI the US has actually stagnated over the past 40 years.

UNEP and the UN University's International Human Development Programme will at Rio+20 publish a report on an Inclusive Wealth Index (IWI) looking at several countries including Brazil.

As measured by GDP per capita, the wealth of Brazil rose 34 percent between 1990 and 2008.

In contrast Brazil's IWI is estimated to have risen just 3 percent in part as a result of losses of natural capital.

I mention these country examples not because they are unique or uniquely startling, but this is where some of the pioneering analysis has already been undertaken towards a new indicator that many believe could assist in accelerating a sustainable future.

Indeed if such indicators had been around for several hundred years, many developed countries would running severe deficits on any of these new yardsticks of progress or inclusive wealth.

There are other pathways towards a new indicator.

  • The EU effort to go "Beyond GDP" - launched in November 2007 aiming to come up with a broader set of macro-level indexes other than GDP and provide information on how economic growth affects its own foundation (stock of all assets)
  • The accounting of Environmental Goods and Services Sector (EGSS) in select countries. OECD and Eurostat have pioneered the development of a statistical framework for measuring the EGSS.
  • OECD's initiative on measuring progress of societies.

The work of the UNEP-hosted International Resource Panel is also providing analysis on how to decouple economic growth from resource use amid concern that resource use could triple by 2050 without that decoupling:

  • In short the aim is to delink economic growth and well being from physical growth as another supportive element of a transition to a Green Economy
  • A transition to a Green Economy is characterized by a significant decoupling from environmental impacts with the global ecological footprint to biocapacity ratio projected to decline from a current level of 1.5 to less than 1.2 by 2050 - much closer to a sustainable threshold value of 1 - as opposed to rising beyond a level of 2 under 'business as usual'.

There are many who anticipate that Rio+20 could launch a process towards an agreement on a universal indicator that might be available for countries to harness in perhaps five years' time, forged in part of in whole from these various pilot ones.

Global Sustainability Reporting-Building on Sao Paulo Stock Exchange

Another possible outcome that is emerging in the final weeks is a cooperative agreement among governments for global sustainability reporting.

Given some of the pioneering work in this field not least through the Sao Paulo stock exchange, this could be another area of interest for Brazil.

Since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, increasing numbers of companies have been factoring environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues into their operations and business models.

Around a quarter of corporations surveyed by Bloomberg are now encapsulating and disclosing some of these elements in their annual reports side by side with cash flows, debts and liabilities.

Meanwhile several stock exchanges ranging from Istanbul and Johannesburg to Sao Paulo and Singapore are now requiring a serious commitment to ESG issues from their listed firms.

Dedicated sustainability indices have also emerged among some international rating agencies and exchanges including the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, the FTS4Good and the NASDAQ Global Sustainability Index.

This progress is welcome:  it allows pension funds, shareholders and other investors to pick firms where sustainability is central-not least because there is good evidence that such corporations are better run, manage natural resources more efficiently, have reduced pollution footprints, are less prone to shocks in a globalized world and less vulnerable to reputational risk.

It is also assisting governments across a wide range of challenges from meeting greenhouse gas targets to tracking health and safety improvements for workers across sectors and geographic regions.

However it is not enough: Indeed the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Coalition-an alliance of pension funds and investors with $2 trillion-worth of assets under management along with, UN agencies and NGOs-concludes that existing voluntary arrangements have hit their limits.

The time is ripe for a global policy framework on corporate sustainability reporting and is essential in order to deliver the basic information, transparency and comparability needed to move forward and assist in fast tracking a transition to a global Green Economy.

Why? Firstly several countries including China, Denmark, Ecuador, India, Norway, Singapore and the United Kingdom have recently created laws, procedures, guidelines and standards in line with the proposed convention. 

These are to be welcomed.  But what business needs most is not many different standards, but a common global agreement on reporting. That will be more effective and lower cost.

Secondly, many of the nuts and bolts underpinning a potential global framework already exist, via such voluntary efforts as the UNEP-founded Global Reporting Initiative, the Global Compact, the Carbon Disclosure Project and the International Integrated Reporting Council which advocates integrated reporting-this being a holistic representation of the "state of play" in a company and in respect to sustainability reporting a necessary stepping stone in achieving such representation.

Thirdly, a survey of stock exchange respondents has found that 80% of those responding wanted a global approach to sustainability reporting; only 30% objected to this being mandated. .

There are many other issues on the table.

These range from sustainable procurement of goods and services by governments and local authorities-an area where UNEP and the authorities in Brazil have been collaborating given its potential to push whole economies into the sustainability space-to the issue of the $600 billion of fossil fuel subsides that distort energy choices.

Phasing down and phasing out such subsidizes make sense to the vast majority while many are there for political reasons to cultivate the support of the few-to put it bluntly.

Honourable Senators,

in a world where the financial and economic crisis that emerged in 2008 is in far too many places still on going and captures the media headlines daily, Rio+20 may seem a date and a destiny out of step with reality.

Yet the crises that are besetting the world and the urgency of realizing sustainable development need to be seen within the same context-indeed Rio+20 is as much about the economy, about equity and about human dignity as many of the other issues that daily are debated in your chambers.

It is perhaps important to  remind ourselves and our citizens that there are some fundamentals driving concerns about the future viability of our nations in a globalized, interconnected world.

Firstly when will this opportunity called Rio+20 come again to correct development from an unsustainable to a sustainable course-to look at the big picture, to transform decision-making from short term fixes to a longer term vision?

Secondly tomorrow UNEP will launch its Global Environment Outlook-5-an assessment involving hundreds of scientists including ones from Brazil.

It provides the sobering analysis that underlines how far the world has progressed yet how even further we have fallen behind-how the gulf between promises and pledges and reality on the ground has grown.

Leadership including from Brazil as the host nation will be pivotal in terms of a positive outcome.

Implementation of existing multilateral environmental agreements and the implementation of directions set at Rio+20, will be as crucial as the outcomes themselves.

This speaks directly to Senates and Congresses as well as parliamentarians in Brazil and  in countries everywhere.

Not just because of your role in respect to shaping international agreements, agreed by your government, to a national setting in terms of delivery and in terms of impact.

But equally you are the interface between the government and the people in terms of democratic decision-making and explaining to citizens from all walks of life why something makes sense to her and to him.

Honourable Senators,

UNEP is honoured to be in Brazil to celebrate World Environment Day 2012-a day that brings communities and nations across the globe in a common expression of a collective desire for a better world glimpsed through the lens of the environment.

Brazil last hosted World Environment Day in 1992 as part of the Rio Earth Summit under the theme Only One Earth.

That fact remains the same-we still have Only One Earth.

Is it in better shape as a result of 20 years of as aspirational sustainable development agenda, the answer has to be no?

But do we have better answers today as a result of trial and testing including the policies, demonstrable gear shifting projects and pathways to a fresh looking future, well the answer must be yes.

A transition to a low carbon, resource efficient, job-generating Green Economy is emerging in many countries-ones who see it not a some sentimental pathway, but a route to sustainable economies and inclusive societies in a resource constrained world.

Rio+20 is in part about scaling up and accelerating such transitions, but also about generating a landscape, the governance structures and the financial pathways and policies that increasingly engage the private sector to ensure that some parts of the world are not by-passed-again.

Brazil, with its long history of multiple and positive international partnerships that straddle the developing and the developed world and its championing of social inclusivity within its borders and across borders, is perhaps better placed than most to ensure the pathways to a Green Economy happen by design-beginning at Rio+20-rather than by default.

It is also a moment to mark Brazil's influence in the world and unique perspective on its future-an influence and a vision that has always been there but one that as a result of policy choices in the recent past has put this country in an increasingly influential role in international affairs.

Thank you

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