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Last Updated: Monday, 12 June 2006, 12:14 GMT 13:14 UK
New environment chief targets poverty
By Richard Black
Environment correspondent, BBC News website

Achim Steiner.  Image: IUCN
Achim Steiner, incoming head of the UN Environment Programme
There must be world citizens by the thousand whose interest in environmental issues started with a childhood spent outdoors in the countryside, fascinated by the ways of nature.

Achim Steiner, the man about to take control of the world's most powerful environment agency, is not one of them, despite his rural origins.

"I basically grew up on a farm, my father was a farmer, so I grew up with nature as part of my everyday experience," he says.

"But what I became interested in was development and poverty - the realisation that for the poorest of the poor, stopping environmental degradation and having the ability to manage it properly is the easiest way for them to work their way out of poverty."

The intimate, destructive relationship between environmental degradation and poverty is at the heart of what the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) is about.

It is not surprising if countries in the South question the value of being involved in international agreements
Achim Steiner
As its incoming executive director, Mr Steiner is in theory well placed to carry plans for breaking the vicious cycle into government offices and boardrooms across the world.

Yet 34 years after its inception, there are doubts as to whether Unep itself is structurally and financially equipped to influence debate and bring real change.

Its leadership is decided; its future lies mired in doubt.

Ceding power

Unep owes its existence to the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, the first significant global gathering to acknowledge the growing impact of human expansion on a number of environmental systems.

"We see around us growing evidence of man-made harm in many regions of the Earth," its final Declaration concluded, enumerating as areas of concern:

  • dangerous levels of pollution in water, air, earth and living beings
  • major and undesirable disturbances to the ecological balance of the biosphere
  • destruction and depletion of irreplaceable resources
  • gross deficiencies, harmful to the physical, mental and social health of man, in the man-made environment
These were not abstruse issues to be seen as separate from human development, it cautioned, noting: "The protection and improvement of the human environment is a major issue which affects the well-being of peoples and economic development throughout the world."

It is very difficult coming in now with the reform debates going on
Felix Dodds
Since 1972, many of the problem areas identified in the Stockholm Declaration have become even more problematic. Scientific evidence is stronger, the global nature of environmental harm clearer; multilateral initiatives such as UN conventions have been established in response.

But with few exceptions, national governments have ceded little power over environmental affairs to Unep or any other international agency; certainly far less than they have ceded on economic and business affairs to the World Trade Organisation.

"Should nation states cede more power?" asks Felix Dodds rhetorically.

"Certainly they should. Will they? I think that is the challenge we face."

Political challenge

As executive director of Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future, an independent agency aiming to bring a variety of stakeholders into the process of environmental governance, Mr Dodds is a close observer of what the ongoing process of UN reform led by Secretary-General Kofi Annan might mean for Unep.

"It doesn't have the power and authority it needs at the moment," he says, "which is why there is discussion in the [UN] General Assembly at the moment about replacing it with a UN Environment Organisation."

This idea, which has significant support within Europe, would beef up Unep's powers and expand its remit.

Unep logo.  Image: Unep
Does Unep currently have the reach and influence it needs?
It could acquire a much greater annual budget than the $58m (31m) it received last year; and it could lead to a much closer relationship between areas of the UN working on environment, development and human rights, issues which are traditionally dealt with separately at government level.

Many questions remain over the UN reform process, and it is easy to see the environmental pressure points.

Yet the carrot dangled before governments is a forum empowered to solve currently intractable international environmental problems, and help boost economic growth in the poorest countries.

Which brings us back to Achim Steiner.

Northern slights

A youthful, somewhat cherubic forty-something, his urbane exterior conceals a past spent largely on fieldwork in some of the poorest regions on Earth, such as northwestern Pakistan, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, and Vietnam.

His experiences in "the South", as the jargon-laden NGO community terms poorer countries of the world, have given him a first-hand view of the currently inequitable distribution of power, finance and environmental standards.

"We need to find a consensus between North and South," he observes.

"If you look back to [the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in] 1992, we had what was almost a social contract on how to act together. But in the last few years we have lost some of the belief in that approach, and now on issues like climate change and fisheries we are not moving forwards as we should be."

He believes developing countries feel let down by failures in the industrialised "North" since Rio.

"Many countries in the South feel they have made major contributions to global environmental goods," he says, "and the help they were promised in 1992 has not been forthcoming - for example, overseas development aid has hardly increased over the period.

In Niger, a boy leads cattle to water, Getty

"In that situation, it is not surprising if countries in the South question the value of being involved in international agreements."

Mr Steiner has also spent valuable time in the boardrooms of international agencies including the World Bank and the World Commission on Dams. Most recently he headed the World Conservation Union (IUCN), a global organisation with more than 1,000 stakeholders including governments and NGOs.

The political tools gained in these difficult fora will be crucial in keeping the work of Unep alive even as its future is decided within the UN's higher echelons.

"He brings a lot of energy to the job," observes Felix Dodds, "and he has a proven record of having dealt with a very difficult issue as head of the World Commission on Dams.

"He has made IUCN much more relevant than before.

"But it is very difficult coming in now with the reform debates going on [at UN headquarters in] in New York; there are lots of internal activities, and it will be important to keep an external focus."

The one certainty as Achim Steiner takes over the reins of Unep is that stormy times lie ahead; and whether he brings the organisation through in a strengthened and relevant form is not some arcane issue for discussion only in remote corridors.

The defining environmental issues of our day are international, and Unep is the one organisation with the potential to develop global, equitable regulation - provided that the national governments which are now debating the UN's future shape give it the tools to do its job.

Then Unep, or the UNEO, or whatever it metamorphoses into, may finally be able to make the impact envisaged in Stockholm 34 years ago, and help human societies to "...shape our actions throughout the world with a more prudent care for their environmental consequences".


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