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World Summit on Sustainable Development

(Johannesburg, 29 August 2002)
Statement by Mrs. Brigita Schmögnerová
United Nations Under-Secretary-General
Executive Secretary
United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE)

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The assessment of progress made throughout the world since the Rio Conference reveals two main challenges for the new decade: we must speed up the concrete implementation of Agenda 21 and subsequent commitments, and we must promote governance practices that integrate social, economic and environmental considerations in decision-making processes.

So has our development become more sustainable? In the environmental and economic fields, the situation within the UNECE region is mixed. In most of the mature market economies, pollution has been substantially cut or stabilized. Sulphur emissions have halved since 1980, for instance. But the increase in overall greenhouse gas emissions remains a very serious worry. Technological innovations have helped to reduce the energy intensity of equipment and consumer goods. However, the increasing volume of used and discarded goods, and the changing structure of consumer demand in key areas, such as energy and transport, have outweighed many of these gains.

The figures from countries in transition tell a different story. The old and wasteful power plants and industries continue to operate, but the overall degree of pollution has decreased owing to the fall in output. New investment in less polluting production remains insufficient however, so energy intensity is still high and any economic recovery in this part of the region may, therefore, entail a significant rise in various forms of air, water and soil pollution. Furthermore, the management of waste has deteriorated and, 16 years after the Chernobyl disaster, the problem of nuclear safety is still on everyone's mind.

This overall picture allows us to identify a number of challenges for the UNECE region. For the most economically advanced countries, these consist mainly in decoupling economic growth from resource use, and moving towards more sustainable patterns of production and consumption. More specifically, this means, among other things, curbing the emission of greenhouse gases by making industry less polluting and making more use of renewable sources of energy, fostering sustainable transport modes and behaviours, and decreasing the pressure of industrialized agriculture on the quality of groundwater and soils.

For the countries in transition, the main issues are: promoting environmentally sound technologies, investing in less energy-intensive equipment for industrial activities and public utilities, changing behaviour in energy consumption, and addressing the question of waste, in particular the recycling of discarded goods, waste-water treatment and nuclear waste.

Now how does the UNECE contribute to meeting these challenges and what lessons can be drawn from its work, in terms of both breakthroughs and limitations? UNECE has a solid track record in developing international law in response to environmental problems. Its five environmental conventions and nine protocols are intended to combat air and water pollution, improve the use of water, prevent industrial accidents, assess the cross-border effects of projects before they are given the go-ahead, and foster public participation in decision-making. In terms of achievements, I am proud to point out that all five conventions have entered into force, that the number of countries that have ratified them is steadily increasing and that new protocols are being negotiated. The main problem now is their implementation.

Countries in South-Eastern Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States often lack the know-how, the funds, the enforcement mechanisms and the infrastructure to comply. A particular case in point is the countries that are aspiring for EU membership, as the very broad range of new legislation that they have to absorb implies daunting legal, institutional and investment challenges. But regardless of whether or not they are applying for membership of the European Union, all countries in transition have to do more to ensure better application of international environmental law. The primary responsibility for this lies with the national and local authorities, but in many cases such capacity building also requires external support.

However, Western countries do not have a flawless record either. They have often been quick to sign conventions but reluctant to ratify them. And since actions will always speak louder than words, I would urge them to honour their promises and put the environmental conventions that they have signed into practice.

To provide policy advice, assistance in capacity-building, etc., an in-depth assessment of the environmental performance of individual countries is needed. This is mainly achieved through the Environmental Performance Reviews, an exercise in which there is a clear division of labour between UNECE and OECD: OECD applies the associated methodology to the economically advanced countries and UNECE to the countries in transition. In the course of the review, consultations are held not only with all relevant ministries but also with the business community and non-governmental organizations.

UNECE has been less involved in the social dimension of sustainable development, because it has no specific mandate to do so. Therefore, UNECE addresses only a limited number of social issues in such policy areas as population, human settlements and gender. Yet such issues are important and more could be done to mainstream the social dimension in the organization's other areas of activity. This requires a consensus among the member States on the need to effectively apply a strategic sustainable development approach to the UNECE work.

You may recall that, in the run-up to this World Summit almost a year ago, UNECE hosted a regional preparatory meeting in Geneva at which the region's Ministers promised to work towards decoupling economic growth and environmental degradation, and to further integrate environmental and health strategies. They also reconfirmed the importance of strategic environmental assessment of plans, programmes and policies, and acknowledged the need to comply with international environmental law, and implement policies to increase social cohesion, reduce unemployment and tackle social inequality. What can UNECE do to move this process forward?

Concerning the Ministers' commitment to work towards decoupling economic growth from environmental pollution and increasing the share of environmentally sound energy production, the UNECE will further develop its work in: providing a forum for policy discussion on reforms in the energy sector of countries in transition; promoting investment in less resource-intensive equipment and end-products; supporting national and local plans and policies for ensuring sustainable transport systems through the effective implementation of the recently adopted Pan-European Transport, Health and Environment Plan; and organizing the sharing of experiences in the restructuring of industry and the creation of new enterprises in line with sustainable development requirements.

Concerning their commitment to further efforts to integrate environmental and health strategies, the contribution of the UNECE, in cooperation with WHO, will focus not only on sustainable transport systems, as I mentioned before, but also on the promotion and implementation of the Protocol on Water and Health. Its adoption constituted a significant step towards improving the quality of drinking water, and we want to make sure that its targets for reducing harmful substances in water are met.

Ministers also confirmed the importance they attach to strategic environmental assessment for national plans, programme and policies. One way to materialize this commitment will be the adoption of a new UNECE protocol at the Kiev Ministerial Conference next year. As a follow-up, linkages will have to be developed between the recommendations resulting from the Environmental Performance Reviews and the Protocol on Strategic Environmental Assessment, in terms of both consistency of legislation and coordination of capacity-building.

Another commitment made at the regional preparatory meeting was that the UNECE member States should comply with all regional and subregional conventions relevant to the environment and sustainable development. To support them in this endeavour, we shall put more emphasis on identifying gaps in the implementation of the UNECE conventions and protocols, and on mobilizing technical assistance in order to fill these gaps especially in countries in transition.

Finally, the Ministers made a commitment that is crucial for the stability and harmonious integration of the whole region, namely, and I quote, "to support countries in transition in their efforts to promote economic growth, eradicate poverty and resolve environmental problems". Within the UNECE, the organization of policy debate and sharing of experiences in key areas for a successful transition towards market economies will have to take full account of this commitment. It should apply particularly to those issues where policy decisions have simultaneously a social, economic and environmental impact, such as energy pricing, industrial restructuring, urban management and infrastructure development. UNECE has shown that debate at the regional level among countries with similar problems but also different levels of development and constraints can indeed be very constructive in identifying trade-offs, eliciting various policy options and creating "win-win" situations in sustainable development terms. An example of the latter is the promotion of new investment which increases the economic efficiency of enterprises, brings about a better use of natural resources and creates employment.

In summary, there are two ways in which UNECE can substantially increase its contribution to sustainable development in the aftermath of the Summit. It can further develop its support to the implementation of its legal agreements, and it can adopt an integrative approach to policy debate, exchange of experiences, assessment and monitoring, placing these activities in a truly sustainable development perspective.

Thank you for your attention.


© United Nations Economic Commissions for Europe – 2013