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Interregional Cooperation for Sustainable Development: Regional Challenges Ahead

(New York, 19 July 2002)

Statement by Mrs. Brigita Schmögnerová, Executive Secretary of the
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE),
to the Economic and Social Council at its 2002 Substantive Session

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Regional Ministerial Meeting for the World Summit on Sustainable Development which took place in Geneva in September 2001, provided the ECE countries with a timely opportunity to assess progress made in the region in the various dimensions of sustainable development, to identify the challenges ahead and to agree on the policy directions and activities to undertake in response to these challenges. The Meeting directly addressed the wide range of sustainability issues, which are at stake in the ECE region. It also reaffirmed the responsibility of the region to take a leading role in global efforts to achieve sustainable development. The regional platform adopted at the Meeting in the form of a Ministerial Declaration fully reflects this willingness to deal with both regional and global challenges. It was in this spirit that the ECE countries not only reconfirmed commitments taken at the Rio Conference and thereafter, notably the Millennium Declaration, but also agreed on further commitments to address the three pillars of sustainable development in a mutually reinforcing way.

Prior to presenting the main challenges ahead for the ECE region, I would like to highlight the major trends related to these three dimensions of sustainable development. In the economic dimension, Western Europe and North America have experienced significant growth in GDP per capita over the past decade and this trend has been accompanied by structural changes in the production system, with a shift from material- and energy-intensive sectors to services. Progress has been made in improving society's eco-efficiency and in decoupling resource use and economic growth, but these gains have been offset by overall increases in the volume of goods and services consumed and discarded. For their part, the central and eastern European countries and the CIS countries are beginning to recover from the transition recession. Yet, only a few of these countries have surpassed their 1989 output level. All economies in transition aim to accelerate their growth, restructure heavy industries, phase out obsolete technologies, and raise energy efficiency. Given the low level of domestic resources, the restricted access of many economies in transition to the international financial markets and the limited amounts of official assistance they have received, some of these countries face severe resource constraints, hampering their progress towards sustainable development.

In the social field, poverty and unemployment are problems faced at varying degrees by the region as a whole. In particular, they strongly affect a large number of transition countries which record growing income disparities and inequal access to education and health services. Life expectancy, particularly for men, declined dramatically. In some countries, the number of people living in poverty raised from 2-3% to 30-40% of the total population. Military conflicts in different parts of the region have further aggravated the social situation. People face many kinds of insecurity - in employment and income, in health and education, in pension and general social protection, and in physical security. Some groups, such as women, youth and pensioners are harder hit then others. While some economic recovery is occurring, such trends affect the human capital and, subsequently, risk to hamper the sustainability of growth and development in a significant number of countries of the region.

Trends in the environmental fields shows that, in Western Europe and North America, technological innovations have helped to reduce the energy and material intensity of many consumer goods and a small but growing number of consumers are also making life-style changes to lessen the health and environmental impact of their consumption patterns. However, the increasing volume of goods used and discarded and the structure of consumer demand in key areas, such as energy and transport, have outweighed many of these gains. In North America and Western Europe increases in consumption still result in increases in various forms of pollution and in ever increasing amounts of waste. The developments in transition countries differ substantially. Even if the old and wasteful power plants and industries continue to operate, the overall degree of pollution has decreased, due to the fall in the output. However, the new investments in less polluting productive activities and the long-term capital required for the needed infrastructure rehabilitation remain still insufficient in many countries. In addition, the regulatory regime did not develop fast enough to enable efficient environmental management.

In the area of energy, fuel switching and efficiency gains - mainly thanks to technological improvements - have helped some countries of the region to move towards significant eco-efficiency gains. However, in large parts of the region, particularly in Eastern Europe and North America, such gains are offset by an increasing use of oil, generating more emissions of CO2 and other pollutants. In the area of transport, developments are jeopardising the ability of countries to achieve their environmental and human health policy targets. Much of the road and air transport infrastructure is used beyond its capacity and gradual increase in the already-high urban population creates greater demands for space and transport infrastructure. Such growing congestion generates large quantities of waste and emissions to soil, water and air.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In view of these major trends characterizing the region, I would like to highlight four major challenges to be tackled by the ECE countries, both in their national policies and through regional and sub-regional cooperation.

The first challenge is to address the issues of poverty, income disparities and intergenerational solidarity in the context of ageing population, budgetary constraints and economic competition. Social policies need to be revisited accordingly and, in particular, to be linked to employment, life-long training, social protection systems and other social transfer schemes. This "social challenge" is closely connected with the sensitive issue of human security. With the rise of extreme nationalist movements in a number of ECE countries, what is at stake here is the political dimension of sustainability, the well functioning of democracy and the respect for human rights.

The second challenge is to accelerate the process of moving towards more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. Technological innovations, fiscal measures, including subsidy removals, regulatory measures and various forms of awareness-building need to be further developed in order to reduce the energy intensity of production processes and the degree of pollution which they generate. Similarly, on the consumption side, a mix of policies and measures is required to stimulate behaviour and lifestyle changes, in particular as they relate to the choice of consumer goods, of transport and other services, and the management of waste. What is at stake is the decoupling of economies growth from resource use by a combination of activities conducted both on the supply and demand sides for goods and services.

Closely linked to the changes in production and consumption patterns, the third challenge is the preservation of the "global commons", mainly air, water and biodiversity. As I mentioned before, policies changing the supply and demand for energy and transport are key in this respect. In addition halting the loss of biodiversity and restoring ecosystems calls for strengthening the environmental dimension in agriculture, landscape, forestry and marine policies. Finally, specific programs and policies have to be further developed for reducing the pollution of groundwater, rivers and lakes, internal seas and coastal zones of the region.

The fourth challenge is the strengthening of governance and participatory democracy for sustainable development. The Aarhus Convention is an outstanding tool for reaching this purpose in the environmental field. More generally, addressing this challenge requires enhanced practices and institutional mechanisms which, on one hand, fosters public participation in decision-making in all dimensions of sustainable development and, on the other, increases integrity, transparency and accountability on the part of public entities, both at national and local levels.

There is no quick fix for making significant progress in tackling the four challenges mentioned above, which concern all ECE countries in various degrees. Based on political willingness, it is up to each country to design the appropriate mix of tools tailored to its specific circumstances, combining economic instruments, legislation and regulations, research and technological innovations, and awareness-raising. Furthermore, each country needs to stimulate and support the involvement of the local authorities, the private sector and civil society organizations in addressing the various facets of these challenges.

These joined efforts within a national framework need themselves to be accompanied, supported and, sometimes, even guided by regional cooperation.

The latter is indispensable for designing regional strategies which promote policy convergence, for sharing national experiences on how to achieve common objectives and for addressing transboundary issues. In this context I would like to highlight the approaches and processes used so far by the ECE for fulfilling its regional role and how they might be consolidated in the aftermath of the Johannesburg Summit.

A first approach is the support of sub-regional and regional processes engaged in the ECE region and related to sustainable development. An outstanding example is the Environment for Europe process which is served by the ECE and which represents a highly productive forum for harmonizing environmentally sound and sustainable development policies on a Pan-European level. The Ministerial Meetings, organized every 3 years, lead to establishing institutional arrangements for coordination of assistance, adopting Pan-European strategies and new environmental agreements, assessing environmental performance and taking further steps in integrating environmental and sectoral policies. The ECE plays a central and catalytical role in the preparation of these ministerial Meetings which also involve all the other regional organizations and institutions active in the environmental fields such as the European Environmental Agency of the European Union, the OECD, UNEP and UNDP.

The ECE assumes this responsibility of coordinating and providing substantive support for a number of other regional processes related to sustainable development. A major outcome of one of these processes is the Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme which has been recently adopted at a High-level Meeting jointly convened by the ECE and WHO/EURO, where the three sectors concerned agreed to cooperate on a series of actions contained in the Programme. I would like also to mention the preparation and follow-up of regional strategies adopted at other ECE High-level meetings, such as the Policy Statement on Sustainable Energy Development, and the Ministerial Declaration and Strategy for a Sustainable Quality of Life in Human Settlements in the 21st Century.

A second ECE approach to sustainability issues is the development of legally binding instruments, focused on two major groups: the five ECE environmental conventions and their related protocols, and those ECE agreements, norms and standards which are geared to promoting sustainable transport. An important development to be noted is the extension of the multilateral environmental agreements in the ECE region from solving transboundary problems (pollution of air and of international rivers and lakes) to establishing European-wide domestic principles and norms in such issues as national environmental impact assessments and access to public information in environmental matters.

A third approach is the support provided to countries with transition economies in their own efforts for moving towards sustainable development. This is done through the organization of environmental performance reviews for individual countries, as well as through capacity-building and policy advice for the implementation of legal instruments and of regional strategies and policy guidelines. To the extent possible, support is provided to groups of countries in a given sub-region; this is, for example, the case for countries of Central Asia on the important issue of the rational use of water and energy.

The ECE is determined to further strengthen these approaches and processes for sustainable development which are based on the fundamental characteristics and proven assets of the Regional Commissions. After Johannesburg, and in view of the expected role and functions assigned to the regional commissions for the follow-up to the Summit's outcome, we shall seek ways to consolidate our work along the following directions:

  • extending our analytical capacity to the social dimension of sustainable development;
  • using this capacity, together with the selection of core sustainable development indicators, to monitor progress made in addressing the regional challenges mentioned above;
  • prompting high-level policy dialogue on the basis of this monitoring work;
  • strengthening our support to sub-regional initiatives in those parts of the ECE region which meet major difficulties in achieving sustainable development.

Finally, I would like to stress our willingness to enter into increased interregional cooperation. So far such cooperation focused on making known some of our environmental conventions to other regional commissions in - particular ESCAP and ECLAC - interested in initiating the discussion on basic common principles in the same areas for their own membership. We have also developed cooperation with ESCWA and ESCAP on the issue of water. A step forward would be to share methodologies for integrated analysis of sustainable development, the identification of obstacles and policy gaps, and the tools for monitoring, at the regional level, the implementation of the commitments taken at the Summit.

In conclusion, we shall spare no efforts to foster intra and inter-regional cooperation for sustainable development. The continuing importance attached, during the preparatory process of the Summit, to the regional dimension of sustainable development is a strong encouragement to move ahead into this direction.

Thank you for your attention.


© United Nations Economic Commissions for Europe – 2013