Remarks by Ms Amina Mohamed at UN Day Seminar on Sustainability Sat, Jun 16, 2012

Dear ladies and gentlemen, panelists and participants in this UN Day seminar,

I am pleased and honored to kick off this day with an inaugural address about sustainability. There are three parts to this session. First I will discuss the sustainability concept itself, its evolution and its practice including challenges and opportunities. Then I will share with you the key elements of the green economy concept in relation to sustainability. And I will end this session with a number of initiatives in which UNEP has taken a lead role within the UN's cooperation with Brazil. Thereafter the floor is open for Q&A and discussion.

I - The concept of 'sustainability': its evolution and its practice

The concept of sustainability has inspired people and has driven them to action across times, generations, societies and various geo-political and ideological boundaries. It has also triggered a wide range of partnerships and international cooperation efforts, some of which will be at the heart of our discussions today.

While critics state that the sustainability concept has eroded over time due to its widening scope and its multiple interpretations, it has in fact not lost a single particle of its relevance and topicality today and more than ever we are aware of the imperative need for a truly comprehensive and global sense of urgency, solidarity and political will to put the concept into practice, backed up by a solid scientific footing, real life experiences, common sense and the awareness that importance of certain common interests goes beyond that of singular ones.

Most recently, on the 5th of June, the UN Secretary General called upon the global community to celebrate the World Environment Day in the spirit of the necessary paradigm shift towards a more sustainable world. In line with this year's WED theme, 'Green Economy: Does it include you?', he emphasized the importance for everyone to play their part in keeping humankind's ecological footprint within the planetary boundaries. In the face of the tremendous population, employment, food security and natural resources challenges, the transition towards sustainable pathways will provide opportunities for all by balancing the social, economic and environmental dimensions of decision making and development. And I quote the UNSG: 'With smart policies and the right investments, countries can protect their environment, grow their economies, generate decent jobs and accelerate social progress'. 'I urge governments, businesses and all members of society to make the holistic choices that will ensure a sustainable future - the future we want.'

A flash-back into the history and evolution of the sustainability concept shows that from the 1980's onwards the focus has shifted from its basic meaning as 'the capacity to endure' in the context of ecosystems or civilizations, towards a different meaning related to the dynamics of development processes and the responsibility of humans to manage natural resources, eco-systems and biodiversity in a durable way.

In particular the UN's Brundtland Commission has influenced the global debate on sustainability with its report 'Our Common Future' and its famous and widely quoted definition of sustainable development as being 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.

The sustainability concept stood center stage at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, also known as the 'Earth Summit', and has been enshrined in the 27 principles of the Rio Declaration to guide future sustainable development around the globe. The Commission on Sustainable Development was established and Agenda 21 was set up as a comprehensive plan of action to be taken up globally, nationally and locally by UN organizations, governments and major groups and stakeholder in every area in which human impacts on the environment occur. The implementation of Agenda 21 and the commitment to the Rio principles were strongly reaffirmed at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg. The notion of sustainability was also embedded in the Millennium Declaration, the Millennium Development Goals and their monitoring framework which have steered international cooperation efforts including funding in the past decade.

The 2005 World Summit added the notion of the three pillars and the imperative to reconcile the economic, social and environmental needs and requirements to ensure sustainability. Subsequently the three pillars have served as a driver for numerous efforts to develop 'sustainability standards' and 'certification systems' in a variety of societal sectors.

Attempts to measure the human impact on the planet's eco-systems and its carrying capacity have started in the 1970's with the so-called IPAT formula* which tries to measure environmental impact through quantification of population, human consumption and resource use impacts.

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These efforts have evolved towards the development of sustainability measurement in the environmental, economic and social areas and within sectors and sub-sectors in the form of assessments, audits, appraisals, standards and reporting systems, including corporate sustainability reporting systems and quality measurement of sustainability governance at the country level <e.g. Environmental Sustainability Index; Environmental Performance Index>.

Recent endeavors focus on national capital accounting from a sustainability perspective. This entails an expansion of the monitoring of national accounts from traditional indicators like GDP towards medium and long term economic, social and environmental sustainability.

The partnership initiative called 'Wealth Accounting and the Valuation of Ecosystem Services (WAVES)' supports countries in the North and South to move beyond the GDP and income focus to incorporate wealth in terms of natural, human and social capital, in addition to manufactured capital, into their national accounts. Since WAVES was launched at the 2010 Convention on Biological Diversity meeting in Nagoya, Japan, the momentum for natural capital accounting has been building up rapidly and more and more countries in the partnership are developing natural capital accounts. <Examples: Botswana, Colombia, Costa Rica, Madagascar and the Philippines have produced work plans that have been endorsed at the highest level of government. Environment ministries expose the contributions of natural capital to national income in order to negotiate appropriate budget allocations. Planning and Finance ministries look for macroeconomic indicators for sustainable development>

While the thinking, the tools and the methodologies to put sustainability into practice have evolved over the past decades and while actions have been undertaken and institutional structures and capacities to implement Agenda 21 have been established and strengthened at the national and other levels, today's challenges are still pressing and a lot remains to be done better, quicker and with more pragmatism and dedication to truly integrate the sustainability dimensions into strategic planning and decision making at all levels.

It is important that the exchange of views and experiences on actions, good practices, challenges and opportunities to walk the talk on sustainability and to enhance international cooperation are at the heart of today's discussions and I hope that we will be able to harvest a number of key lessons and recommendations for joint action at the end of the day.

The major global environmental challenges have been exposed in the fifth Global Environment Outlook (GEO) which was launched last week.

To reflect some of the challenges and opportunities ahead I want to share one of the report's conclusions with you: 'The world continues to speed down an unsustainable path despite over 500 internationally agreed goals and objectives to support the sustainable management of the environment and improve human wellbeing. However, meeting an ambitious set of sustainability targets by the middle of the century is possible if current policies and strategies are changed and strengthened and successful policies are rapidly scaled-up'. I highly recommend you to draw guidance and inspiration from the GEO-5 report and its wealth of information provided on the state and trends of the global environment, on the policy options from the regions and on the opportunities for a global response.

Chapters 16 and 17 review the state of knowledge of how public institutions, the private sector and civil society can generate effective and efficient responses to environmental change. While many responses at national and regional levels have successfully put societies on trajectories that are beginning to address some of these challenges, the analysis confirms that global environmental change cannot be addressed successfully by any single approach.

GEO-5 concludes by identifying combined action at the global and national level to enable the adoption of truly transformative policies as well as the legal, institutional and policy frameworks required to make them successful. GEO-5 intends to enhance global awareness of the complexity of the threats faced by humanity and provides possible policy solutions and transformative pathways to a sustainable future.

As we are gathered here today, we have the critical mass to keep up the spirit and momentum for leadership and readiness to act, to develop more diverse and more inclusive partnerships for the sake of sustainable societies across the planet, to build bridges and seek common ground  between the dialogues at Rio Centro and those at the Peoples Summit in Flamengo and to join forces in support of truly holistic and integrated development and transformation pathways which are able to reduce fragmentation, to break down silos and to connect sectors and sub-sectors for the sake of the whole.

As a UN family we have embarked on substantial reforms in the previous decade which have yielded promising results in terms of enhanced system wide coherence, relevance and effectiveness. We have demonstrated that we can deliver results and impact as One UN and that in times of growing fiscal austerity we are able to do more with less. Amongst the most important messages to be shared as a continuous inspiration for urgent action is the imperative that sustainability should not be traded off against capital scarcity and that results and creative solutions can be achieved at all scales and levels based on genuine willingness and leadership.

II - Green Economy

A highly comprehensive, pragmatic and innovative way to put sustainability into practice and to drive transformative change towards sustainability, which has gained tremendous momentum at global scale since its launch, is the Green Economy pathway.

There is mounting evidence and compelling reasons for moving towards a green economy, not least of which are planetary boundaries which impose constraints to economic growth as traditionally conceived. As we enter the second decade of the new millennium, it is clear that business as usual towards economics is no longer a feasible solution. The science is telling:  collectively we have crossed several of the most prominent bio-physical tipping points at the planetary level, and if we continue on the same path we threaten to cross more, perhaps irreversible, thresholds of environmental degradation, threatening to undermine the basis of prosperity and our collective well-being.

This calls into question the traditional models of economic growth, based on ever increasing quantities of goods and services being produced and consumed to spur new jobs and income.  It raises the question of how to create prosperity, jobs and income within a resource-constrained world. Within this historical context, new schools of thought have emerged to provide alternatives to the traditional models. New approaches to greening the economy - to creating value without destroying wealth - are emerging.

As one of the main themes of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, member states have recognized that a green economy can be a means - perhaps one of the most important drivers - to achieve sustainable development, poverty eradication and the creation of decent work.

There remain some concerns on the part of some member states' understanding of the concept of green economy and whether it adequately takes into account considerations of inclusiveness, social development and poverty eradication. They have also flagged concerns as regards the potential impacts of green economy policies on trade and conditionalities on aid. In their proposed text for the outcome document, some have also attempted to push further than other member states in terms of reform of the economic system or examining intellectual property rules, for example, stressing that we must look deeper into the flaws of our current economic models and thinking.

Despite these divergences, there does appear to be convergence to some extent on what green economy is or is not, and what some potential outcomes could be. The following presents the main outcomes for Green Economy that UNEP believes would ensure the success of the Conference in Rio de Janeiro. 

Agreement to establish an internationally-agreed accounting framework to complement GDP through better measurements of national wealth.

An unbalanced focus on economic activity has enshrined GDP as a key indicator of development. However, this exclusive reliance on market activity fails to account for important dimensions of social development and the environment. Given the lack of progress in integrating the pillars of sustainable development, there is increasing awareness of the need for improved data and indicators to complement GDP. "Beyond GDP accounting" is needed to measure economic performance in terms of inclusive wealth creation and human well-being, and to assess resource efficiency and environmental sustainability, incorporating these in national accounting frameworks.

Commitment to undertake fiscal reform, including reorientation of tax and subsidy policies to reverse the misallocation of capital and redirect government funding towards green investment

Certain government subsidies are artificially reducing the prices of environmentally harmful goods and services, promoting excessive consumption levels, and hampering the investment in and development of alternative cleaner solutions.  At the same time, these subsidies reduce the fiscal space available to governments for direct investments in green sectors and the potential support to other actors. A key outcome for Rio +20 could be commitments to remove subsidies in areas that degrade our ecosystems and deplete our natural capital including subsidies for environmentally harmful and polluting inputs, subsidies that result in distorted energy prices, and incentives that support unsustainable activities - in particular fossil fuel subsidies that encourage the use of dirty fuels and hold back the development of cleaner technologies, and  fishery subsidies, which contribute to  excess capacity and fishing pressure on remaining fish stocks.

A future framework on corporate sustainability disclosure, requiring the integration of material sustainability issues within the corporate reporting cycle on a 'report or explain' basis.

UNCSD should address the role of and secure the engagement of all stakeholders; the private sector and the finance sector in particular has a key contribution to make in the transition to a green economy. While voluntary sustainability reporting initiatives have seen some success, reporting remains ad hoc, and governments should introduce regulation requiring sustainability reporting from all major companies, while strongly encouraging financial institutions to take sustainability considerations into account in their decision-making processes.

Commitment to restructure public spending to prioritize environmental and social investments and set concrete targets for sustainable public procurement within national and local public institutions.

Public procurement is estimated at over US$ 4 trillion annually, representing as much as 30% of GDP for some countries. Public procurement has the potential to stimulate markets for resource efficient and environmental friendly products through not only its volume, but also through its standard-setting function.

Launch a Program of Action for a Green Economy, including a capacity development/advisory scheme and focus on Green Jobs

While recognizing that there can be no "one-size fits all" approach and that governments must define their own pathways for greening their economies, UNCSD is an opportunity for governments to establish the necessary mechanisms for effective coordination and support at the global level which would provide the necessary tools, policy options and international support mechanisms for countries to put in place measures for a green economy.  This could include:

  • capacity building to respond to country demand for, inter alia, support to develop national green economy program for action;  policy and fiscal instruments that can enable investments in green sectors; and to create a measurement framework to monitor and assess the impact of investments and policy reforms at the national level
  • An information platform for all stakeholders to share examples of best practices and pool together tools, methodologies, studies and policy recommendations on green economy; UNEP, the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI), the OECD and the World Bank recently established a Green Growth Knowledge Platform which could serve as a foundation for any such platform
  • A funding mechanism comprising sovereign funds, reoriented public expenditure, multilateral and bilateral contributions, international and regional financial institutions, and private financing, in order to reach the expected level of investments required.

The role of the private sector in the transition to a resource efficient economy

The manufacturing sector offers opportunities to decouple resource use and environmental impacts. Resource efficiency and sustainable consumption and production can lower company as well as societal costs through reduced material, energy and water consumption which can translate into increased profitability, job creation, reduced environmental pressure and accurate valuing of ecosystem services. This requires moving away from Business as Usual and identifying ways to reduce the resources needed to produce finished goods and associated negative externalities such as waste and pollution in addition to social costs.

Through eco-innovation, consumer needs (including between businesses along value chains) can be met with products and services that are more functional and durable.  If manufacturing adopted life-cycle approaches throughout value chains which increasingly cross the globe, and used cleaner technologies and closed-cycle processes, environmental and social impacts could be reduced. If durability of manufactured products could be prolonged by 10 per cent, the volume of resources extracted from the environment could be cut and there would be increased options for consumer satisfaction through enhanced functionality and increased product/brand loyalties. Imagine if we could for example use recycled metals in a systematic way: it would be between two and ten times more energy efficient than smelting the metals from virgin ores.

Reaching companies in developing and emerging economies remains challenging, as does reaching smaller companies along global value chains, which are estimated to be responsible for more than 50 per cent of GDP worldwide. However it is also here where the greatest opportunity for change is anticipated with future growth anticipated to come from these countries.  And here it is where the Resource Efficient and Cleaner Production Program, a joint initiative of UNEP and UNIDO, has been ever evolving to meet the needs of the private sector, in particular in emerging economies and developing countries, to promote the resource efficiency agenda and safer production practices, which can help decouple economic growth from environmental degradation.

In addition, prevention, preparedness and risk reduction have shown to produce very good returns on investment, both in the context of natural disasters and in the more specific context of environmental emergencies. A response to this need is provided through the programme "Awareness and Preparedness for Emergencies at Local Level", which has been implemented over 20 years and has numerous examples of successful implementation in Brazil, showing the opportunities of a public private partnership in responding to environmental emergencies.

III - UNEP's cooperation with Brazil

Introduction and UN context:

UNEP's cooperation with Brazil has evolved in the context of the overall UN cooperation with Brazil and UNEP has supported a considerable number of initiatives in close collaboration with a variety of partners.

The Brazilian Government is committed to work with the UN on the "Green Economy and Decent Work" agenda and this interest is expressed by Brazil´s approval of the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF) 2012-2015 document.

The Common Country Assessment (CCA) and the UNDAF Brazil 2012-2015 include "Green Economy and Decent Work" as one of its priority areas. UNEP and ILO will be the leading agencies for the coordination and development of initiatives in these areas. The other expected outcomes of the UNDAF are: Millennium Development Goals (MDG) for all; Human Security and South-South Cooperation.

On the 5th of June 2012, World Environment Day, President Dilma Roussef has signed a National decree which establishes that all public procurement must be sustainable.

Highlights of UNEP's cooperation efforts with Brazil and results achieved:

Action Plan for Sustainable Consumption and Production in Brazil  

In December 2010 UNEP signed a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Environment in Brazil (MMA) in order to provide support to Brazil in the implementation of actions aligned with the concept of Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) established by the Marrakesh Process.  Brazil joined this Process in 2007 and various actions at national level have already been conducted to promote more sustainable consumption and production patterns.

The Plan was endorsed and officially launched in October 2011. The cooperation agreement will be executed until 2015 and it includes activities for the six priorities areas defined under the National Plan for its first cycle (2011-2014): 1) Sustainable Construction; 2) Sustainable Consumption and Retailing; 3) Sustainable Public Procurement; 4) Increase in the recycling of Solid Waste; 5) Education for Sustainable Consumption; and 6) Environmental Agenda for Public Administration.

Sustainable Social Housing Initiative in Brazil (SUSHI)

The Sustainable Social Housing Initiative (SUSHI) was initiated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in 2009 to promote the use of resource and energy efficient building solutions in social housing programs in developing countries. Although the initial focus was to improve the environmental performance of units, the project evolved to a broader definition of sustainability, encompassing actions for social equity and economic durability.  The project was carried out simultaneously in two selected locations: Bangkok (Thailand) and São Paulo (Brazil). From 2009 to 2011, each project team developed a local approach and selected targeted solutions to improve sustainability in social housing, considering local priorities, challenges, and previous experiences.

The objective was not only to improve the housing units' environmental performance, but also create the momentum for a broader commitment to sustainability in social housing. In partnership with local stakeholders, project teams raised awareness of the potential benefits of sustainable solutions, mapped available technologies and solutions, conducted trainings to build capacity in technical and political spheres, and provided concrete and locally-appropriate recommendations to social housing developers.

Project activities were concluded in June 2011 and a project document for the 2nd phase of this initiative is under development and will also include a south-south cooperation component, taking into account the interest expressed by other countries in the region, such as Uruguay, Mexico, Peru and Haiti.

Eco-labeling Activities

The project Regional Cooperation on Eco-labeling for Southern Cone Countries aims to help stimulate the demand and supply of more sustainable products in Southern Cone countries - Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay - and to promote Sustainable Consumption and Production (SCP) patterns in the region.  The project is a follow-up to the UNEP project 'Enabling developing countries to seize eco-labeling opportunities'. It benefits from lessons learned on UNEP's project on Sustainable Public Procurement (SPP), and Nordic experiences with the Nordic Eco-label and SPP. Project partners in Brazil: Ministry of Development, Industry and International Trade and Ministry of Environment

Development of a National Implementation Plan in Brazil as a first step to implement the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)

Brazil ratified the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in 2004 and as resulta of that, the country must transmit a National Implementation Plan (NIP) to the Conference of Parties. The project is designed to meet that objective and to build the capacity of Brazil to implement its NIP. Partner: Ministry of environment.

Improving Brazilian Capacity to Conserve and Use Biodiversity through Information Management

Project aims at ensuring better policy design and implementation by facilitating and mainstreaming biodiversity information into decision making and policy development processes. Partner: Ministry of Science and Technology.

Mitigation Options of greenhouse gas emission in key sectors in Brazil

UNEP is supporting the Ministry of Science and Technology in the preparation of this GEF proposal.  The objective of the project is to assist the Brazilian Government in strengthening its technical capacity in the implementation of mitigation actions for greenhouse gas emissions in key national economic sectors (energy, forests, industry, agriculture and animal husbandry, transportation, civil construction, and residues) as identified in the Brazilian National Policy and Plan on Climate Change.


TEEB activities in Brazil are composed by 4 studies (formulation of a national policy, business sector, local and regional governments, and citizens). UNEP is providing support to the Ministry of Environment in the implementation of TEEB agenda in the country. A gap analysis study for the TEEB Brazil report was undertaken by IPEA (Institute for Applied Economic Research) and UNEP will be providing support for the follow-up activities.

  • Public and Private Investments and Climate Change

In 2009 and 2010, UNEP prepared 2 assessments on policies and practices undertaken by the main banks (public and private) in Brazil for reducing climate impacts of their operations. Reports present samples of initiatives and procedures that have already been implemented by the banks, as well as programs that are currently in development to promote the transition to a low carbon economy. The selected public and private banks represent approximately 80% of the Brazilian financial credit. The project was developed in partnership with Getulio Vargas Foundation, counting with financing contribution from the British Embassy in Brazil.

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

I wish to thank you for your attention and I conclude this session with a strong touch of hope and a call for optimism, because we are all on converging wavelengths and motivated by the same vision and sense of urgency.

I wish you all a fruitful and memorable seminar today and a lot of inspiration in the last stage of the run up to Rio+20. The floor is open now for Q&A and discussion.

Thank you.

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