• English

Regional Ministerial Meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development

Geneva, 24-25 September 2001

Opening statement by Mrs. Danuta Hübner,
United Nations Under-Secretary-General,
Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission
for Europe (UNECE)

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,  

The United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 established sustainable development as a consensus concept for improving the quality of economic growth, promoting better social security and reducing the pressures on the environment. Sustainable development has thus become a new way of thinking and acting.

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

When the Rio Conference adopted Agenda 21, a comprehensive programme for action, the document was evidence of the optimism prevailing at 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 it is certain that much less would have been achieved.  

Let me make just a few observations on the changes in our region, sometimes towards sustainable development and sometimes away from it, drawing from the “Assessment of Progress in Sustainable Development since Rio 1992 for Member States of UNECE”, prepared by UNECE in cooperation with UNEP’s Regional Office for Europe, which assesses achievements and failures in the region in implementing the Rio decisions.

The most radical changes in the region have taken place in the countries with economies in transition. The transition has proven to be much more painful than anticipated. At the beginning of the process, production levels fell sharply in most countries, resulting in an increase in unemployment. Poverty spread to large parts of the population as a result of the drop in incomes and the virtual collapse of the social security systems. Income distribution became extremely uneven, weakening social cohesion. Corruption and criminality developed as the public authorities saw their resources and capabilities severely cut back. 

On the other hand, a new class of entrepreneurs established itself, in some countries more easily than in others, thus laying a new foundation for economic growth. The march towards democracy also fostered a new sense of openness and transparency throughout society as a whole. Non-governmental organizations were formed in unprecedented numbers. In several countries Governments launched and implemented successful transition strategies. The European Union’s enlargement process has played a crucial role as a vehicle for reform and growth, contributing also to environmentally friendly structural and institutional transformations in the region.  

Where are we in our region today with regard to the sustainability of development?  

The environmental developments in the region present a mixed picture. The economic decline in the countries in transition led to a decrease in emissions to air, water and soil.  In most countries, however, the decrease was smaller than would have been expected from the economic slow-down. For example, the energy intensity of many economies, in fact, increased, due to a lack of investment. Waste-water treatment plants lost purification efficiency due to inadequate maintenance and drastic changes in water flows. The waste situation deteriorated further as no priority was given to this problem, so aggravating the legacy from the past.  

In most of the mature market economies sulphur emissions to the air were reduced substantially. Emissions of nitrogen oxides stabilized or were somewhat reduced, as were emissions of substances depleting stratospheric ozone. However, overall 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 water has been clearly improved in most western countries, resulting in better water quality in many major rivers and lakes. The jury is still out, however, as many of these rivers, lakes and coastal areas are experiencing increasing environmental pressures, especially from the booming tourist industry. 

The overall problems related to transport in urban areas are particularly disturbing. Congestion problems have been coupled with urban sprawl, in particular in North America, but also in parts of Western Europe, leading to a greater need to use private cars.  We need more political determination to deal with these complex problems. 

In agriculture, in many economies in transition the use of fertilizers and pesticides has been reduced, thereby decreasing emissions to soil and water. However, the emergence of a great number of new, smaller farms may result in greater pressure over time.

In western countries, industrialized agriculture is showing growing signs of stress. In many cases the health and quality of livestock are threatened and the intensity of production has forced some countries to drastically reduce production units. 

An environmentally sound development of the energy and transport services has proved much more complicated than expected. Energy efficiency in traditional market economies has improved, but the rate of improvement has slowed during the past few years. There has been a slight increase in the share of renewable energy sources, but it is still too low to be of significant importance in most countries. 

In transition economies, progress in increasing energy efficiency has often been frustrating. Despite evidence that substantial improvements can be cost-efficient, progress has been slow in many countries. The low level of investments in many key countries has allowed production capacity to become run-down and excessively polluting. 

Transport continues to be a major source of problems in terms of air pollution, noise and use of land. Congestion in urban areas has grown steadily in all parts of the region. Public transport systems in countries in transition are losing ground because their infrastructure and equipment are not renewed, and private car ownership has surged. Technical improvements in new cars are being offset by the increase in car size, ownership and use. The negative health impacts of transport are becoming obvious. 

One of the crucial themes in Rio was the integration of environmental concerns in decision-making in all sectors of society. The environmental administrations should take initiatives based on their overall expertise in the need to combat negative environmental impacts from economic sectors. The daily efforts to limit environmental impacts should be carried out by the sectoral administrations as an integral part of their normal work.  

There is no doubt that awareness of the need for integration and cross-sectoral cooperation has increased substantially since Rio. Many countries have achieved good results in setting up cooperative structures. This approach needs to be further strengthened in order to ensure a more qualitative growth in the various sectors of activity. Hence the importance of decoupling economic growth from resource use, as strongly advocated by the OECD and the European Union.

Agenda 21 has encouraged a great number of local authorities to take concrete action at the local level. Comprehensive programmes for translating the Rio principles into action have been drafted and implemented in thousands of municipalities in the ECE region. This is one of the tangible impacts of Agenda 21, even if progress has been uneven here too. We must, however, 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 this is true in countries with economies in transition too, much remains to be done.  

Let me mention here the UNECE Convention on Access to 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 the promotion of greater public involvement in environmental awareness raising and participation in decision-making. The Convention enters into force on the 30th of October this year, thus becoming a strong legally binding tool. Now great emphasis should be given to its effective implementation and to promoting its wider ratification. Implementation is what matters most. 

The main resources for development have to be fostered in the countries concerned through effective economic and social policies. However, many countries are finding it hard to mobilize the resources needed for a good start along the road to sustainable development and will need external support. Many of the countries in our region are major donors in the environmental field also. However, only a few of them have been able to live up to the commitment, renewed in Rio, to allocate 0.7 per cent of their GDP to official development assistance. This insufficient financing also affects the emerging market economies that face development problems. We all know that foreign direct investment has a tendency to be channelled to relatively well-developed parts of the region. The least developed transition economies, especially those of the CIS and southeast Europe, have received very little foreign financial impetus for their sustainable development. 

The political contribution from the ECE region to the World Summit in Johannesburg in September 2002 is being decided upon at this meeting and for more than a year UNECE has been preparing for it in cooperation with the UNEP’s Regional Office for Europe. In addition to the assessment report which I mentioned earlier, there have been important preparatory meetings which brought together various groups of countries within the ECE region. Allow me to mention in particular those organized by the OECD, the European Union as well as those which took place in Bucharest for central European countries and in Almaty for CIS countries. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all the international organizations which are actively contributing to supporting sustainable development in our region and which, for this reason, are also involved in the process leading up to the Summit. Furthermore, we are working in close cooperation with the UN Department for Economic and Social Affairs in order to ensure synergies between the regional preparations and the global preparatory process taking place in New York. 

The Ministerial Statement from this meeting has been the subject of intense negotiations between Governments with broad participation also from different non-governmental and intergovernmental organizations. The diversity of economic and social conditions as well as of political opinions is reflected in the draft statement, which is before you.  It expresses commitments to making additional tangible progress in sustainable development in ECE countries and it also provides a significant message on the views of our region on the global issues to be addressed at the Johannesburg Summit. This is particularly the case for the challenges of poverty eradication and global governance, which will be the subject of the two ministerial panels tomorrow.  I hope that this political message to the Johannesburg Summit will give a clear indication that the Governments in our region are prepared to work together to reinforce the commitments they made in Rio and to embark on new ones. Let me stress that a fundamental requirement for implementing these commitments effectively will be the determination of public authorities, civil society and the business community to cooperate closely, and hence, to make real concerted efforts, with the support of relevant international organizations, to find concrete solutions to the major issues I have mentioned earlier. 

Regional preparations for the Summit do not take place in a vacuum. They build, in particular, upon a number of ongoing regional processes in which the ECE is largely involved by playing a catalytic role and contributing its expertise. I would first like to mention the Ministerial process ‘Environment for Europe’, which has gained wide recognition as the main high-level environmental policy-making forum in the region. Preparations for the next meeting in May 2003 in Kiev, Ukraine, are under way and the Ministerial Statement to be adopted here can be used as a political signal for the Kiev preparations, where appropriate. 

Regional cooperation on transport, environment and health is another process that is developing on the basis of the decisions taken at the Vienna and London Ministerial Conferences. This process, promoted jointly by the ECE and WHO, has the potential to produce real contributions toward reducing the adverse environmental and health impacts from transport, notably road transport. A high-level meeting between the three sectors concerned was convened in May this year to decide on further steps. I will inform you of the progress made in this work later today. 

Another high-level political process with which the UNECE is closely associated is the Ministerial Conference on the Protection of Forests in Europe, through which Governments have made ambitious commitments to achieving sustainable forest management in the region and transparent monitoring of progress towards this goal. 

In the field of sustainable energy, the ECE provides a forum for countries to exchange views and share experiences as well as to formulate energy strategies and policies with a view to facilitating society’s transition to more sustainable forms of energy production and consumption. In this respect, a wide-ranging regional statement was adopted last year, identifying policy responses required to meet the challenges of the 21st century in the area of energy. 

Last but not least, I would like to stress the importance of the efforts made by member States, within the ECE framework, to build a set of regional environmental conventions and protocols. The ECE is determined to support the promotion and further development of these legal instruments, as is currently the case with the preparation of new protocols on liability for environmental hazards and on strategic environmental assessment. 

            In concluding, I would like to note that in spite of some heart-warming progress made through these various processes and tools, much still remains to be done in the region on the road to a more sustainable future. That is why this regional ministerial meeting must give new political impetus to regional and global efforts to make the work for sustainable development more effective and consistent. Our region has a particular responsibility in this sense due to our historical legacies and our present problems and possibilities.     

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of the UNECE I warmly welcome you to this ministerial meeting and hope that you will be successful in your deliberations.