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Meeting of Ministers of Environment

Bucharest, 29 April 2001

Statement by Mrs. Danuta Hübner
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe

Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by going back to Rio de Janeiro where in 1992 sustainable development has been established as a consensus concept for improving the quality of economic growth, promoting better social security and reducing the pressures on the environment. Thus sustainable development has become a new way of thinking and acting.

Basically the concept of sustainable development is simple: the present generation must not pursue its economic and environmental goals by compromising future generations’ development opportunities. This kind of solidarity between generations may be seen as self-evident on a conceptual level, but the reality has often been quite different.

When the Rio conference was adopting a comprehensive programme for action, ‘Agenda 21’, this document was evidence of the optimistic atmosphere of that time: the summit believed that the global community could move towards sustainable development on a broad front and on many levels of society. Today we can say that without the spirit of Rio much less would have certainly been achieved.

Let me make just a few observations about the changes in our region towards sustainable development and, in some occasions, away from it, basing on a draft report assessing achievements and failures in the region in implementing the Rio decisions, prepared by UNECE in cooperation with the UNEP office for Europe.

The most profound changes in the region have taken place in countries with economies in transition. As a new class of entrepreneurs established itself, in some countries more easily than in others, thus building a new basis for economic growth and change; as the march towards democracy has fostered a new sense of openness and transparency on all levels of society; and as non-governmental organizations developed in unprecedented numbers, we are now better poised to address the challenge of sustainable development in a close partnership between governments, local authorities, civil society, business sector and international community. European Union enlargement process has played a crucial role as a vehicle for reforms and growth, contributing also to environmentally friendly structural and institutional transformations in the region.

So where are we in our region on the eve of the Johannesburg summit? The environmental developments in the region unveil a mixed picture, with sharp disparities across countries and subregions. The economic decline in the countries in transition led to a decrease in the emissions to the air, water and soil. In most countries, however, the decrease was smaller than would have been expected. The energy intensity of many economies, in fact, increased, due to lack of investments. Wastewater treatment plants lost purification efficiency due to lack of maintenance and drastic changes in water flows. The waste situation deteriorated further as no priority was given to this problem, which aggravated the legacy from the past.

In mature market economies, the sulphur emissions to the air were reduced substantially in most countries. The emissions of nitrogen oxides were stabilized or even reduced as were emissions of substances depleting stratospheric ozone. However, the emissions of greenhouse gases continued to increase, causing widespread concern about the ability of governments to counter this most threatening of all environmental concerns.

The treatment of waste waters has been clearly improved in most western countries resulting in better water quality in major rivers and lakes, but many of these rivers, lakes and coastal areas are experiencing growing environmental pressures especially from the booming tourist industry.

An environmentally sound development of the energy and transport services has proved to be much more complicated than expected. The energy efficiency in Western economies has improved, but the rate of improvement has slowed down during the last years. The share of renewable energy sources, though increased, is still too low to be of significant importance in most countries.

In transition economies, the progress in increasing energy efficiency has often been frustrating. The low level of investments in many key countries led to a worn down production capacity that is exorbitantly polluting.

Transport has grown into the most problematic sector in terms of air pollution, noise and use of land. The congestion in urban areas has increased steadily in all parts of the region. Earlier well funded and functioning public transport systems in economies in transition are losing ground due to lack of investments and the surge in long awaited ownership of private cars. Technical improvements in new cars are being off-set by the rise in car ownership and use. The negative health impacts of transport are becoming obvious.

The over-all problems related to transport in urban areas are particularly disturbing. The problems of congestion have been coupled with urban sprawl, in particular in North America, but also in parts of Western Europe, leading to additional need for use of private cars. We need more political determination to deal with these complex problems.

In many economies in transition, the economic misery in agriculture has reduced the use of fertilizers and pesticides thus decreasing the emissions in soil and water, but the emergence of a great number of new, smaller farms may result in more pressures over time.

In the western countries, the industrialized agriculture has produced growing signs of stress. The health and quality of livestock are in many cases threatened and the intensity of production has forced some countries to drastically reduce production units. It is difficult to judge at this stage how the present trends could continue.

One of the crucial themes in Rio was the integration of environmental concerns in the decision-making in other sectors of society. While the environmental administrations should take initiatives, based on their overall expertise, on the needs to combat negative environmental impacts from the sector, the everyday work to limit the environmental impacts should be carried out by the sector administration as an integral part of its normal work.

It is true that the awareness of the need for integration and cross-sectoral cooperation has increased substantially during the period since Rio. Many countries have achieved good results in setting up cooperative structures. Most of the decision-making, however, remains sector-oriented. Too often are the environmental problems seen as disturbing the basic activities in other sectors.

Agenda 21 has encouraged a great number of local authorities to concrete action on the local level. Comprehensive programmes for implementation of the Rio principles have been drafted and implemented in thousands of municipalities in the region. This is one of the tangible impacts of Agenda 21, even if progress here as well has been uneven. We must do more in this area.

The impact of non-governmental organizations has increased during the post-Rio period. The number of NGOs has grown and their expertise in matters of sustainable development has improved considerably. Though in countries with economies in transition this trend has also persisted, again, much remains to be done.

Let me mention here our Convention on Environmental Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, the Aarhus Convention, which is undoubtedly one of the legal breakthroughs on the international level in promoting greater public involvement in environmental awareness raising and participation in decision-making. The Convention is expected to enter into force this year thus becoming a strong legally binding tool. Then, however, we will face the challenge of what matters most and which is its implementation.

Many of the countries of the region are major donors also in the field of environment. However, only few of them have been able to live up to their commitment in Rio to use 0.7 percent of their GDP for official development assistance. This has had a major impact also on the flows of assistance to the emerging market economies in the region which face development problems. We all know that foreign direct investment – over last 10 years – has had a tendency to go rather to relatively advanced countries of the region. The least developed transition economies, especially those of the Community of Independent States and Southeast Europe have received very little of foreign financial impetus for their sustainable development.

The preparatory process for the Johannesburg Summit in 2002 has both its global and regional dimension. It is expected that the stock-taking exercise will be completed prior to the Summit which will allow the Summit to focus on new concrete emerging issues, that were not as prominent in 1992, and on the implementation challenge, which matters most. It is fair to expect that issues related to broadly understood poverty, dimension of sustainable development governance and globalization will rank high among those to be addressed.

The regional preparatory process, that is conducted in cooperation between UN/ECE and UNEP regional office, has chosen a ‘the whole of government’ approach with a broad range of stakeholders to be invited to participate in the preparatory process.

The UN/ECE and UNEP/Euro secretariats have just finalized the first draft of an assessment report on progress and problems in implementing the Rio decisions in the region. The draft will be discussed this week in Geneva with all major stakeholders and finalized by the end of May.

On 12-13 July an open-ended preparatory meeting, with strong participation of representatives from non-governmental organizations, the business community and local authorities, will be held in Geneva to discuss the political declaration to be adopted at the regional ministerial meeting on 24-25 September. Regional priorities for the global summit and key issues to be tackled on the regional level will be identified.

In concluding, I would like to note that since Rio we have achieved a lot in the region, but in spite of heart-warming progress much remains to be done in the region on the road to a more sustainable future. UNECE, together with UNEP/Euro, hope to be able to make a contribution to further work as host for the regional preparations for the Johannesburg Summit. It seems fair to expect governments reinforcing their commitments to sustainable development also by new concrete decisions. Hopefully our region can assist carrying the Rio torch to Johannesburg strengthening its flame further.

Thank you for your attention.


© United Nations Economic Commissions for Europe – 2013