40 Years of UNEP - Interview with Achim Steiner
1. 40 years of UNEP - what are its greatest achievements?
There are numerous milestones that define UNEP's achievements in 40 years. The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer---the protective shield that filters out dangerous levels of the sun's ultra violet rays---is a case in point.
Without the Montreal Protocol, which celebrates its 25^th anniversary this year, atmospheric levels of ozone-depleting substances could have increased tenfold by 2050 which in turn could have led to up to 20 million more cases of skin cancer and 130 million more cases of eye cataracts, not to speak of damage to human immune systems, wildlife and agriculture.
In the late 1980s, as the world was struggling to understand the implications of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization established the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.Its scientific work has become the premier risk assessment and reference work for governments on the likely trends and impacts of global warming and the Panel's findings played a key role in the decision to establish the UN climate convention and its emission reduction treaty, the Kyoto Protocol.
Following the Earth Summit of 1992, UNEP was given opportunities to evolve its work as an implementing agency of a new multibillion-dollar fund, the Global Environment Facility.
Since 2008, the organization has been championing the Green Economy as a way of generating development and employment but in a way that keeps humanity's footprint within ecological boundaries. Part of the Green Economy work has been to assess and communicate to governments the multi-trillion dollar services that nature provides, but which until recently have been all but invisible in national accounts of profit and loss.
2. What are your expectations for Rio+20?
Rio+20 may see the Green Economy initiative translated into a fresh and forward-looking way of finally realizing sustainable development for seven billion people, rising to over nine billion by 2050.
Some governments, including Germany, are also signaling that the time has come to strengthen UNEP itself perhaps into a World Environment Organization.
A transformational outcome in Rio may also provide some confidence to a global public that those responsible for managing the planet have indeed got solutions and the resolve of leadership to not only deliver economic progress, but social and environmental progress too.
3. Which environmental issues are important for Kenya, host state of UNEP?
Energy and ecosystems are two areas where Kenya is undertaking pioneering work, with assistance and input from UNEP. The expansion of Kenya's geothermal electricity potential in the Great Rift Valley has been made possible in part by a UNEP-led project to bring in new, more reliable and cost effective drilling techniques.
UNEP advised on feed--in tariffs, which Kenya introduced in 2008, to expand renewable energy power generation in the country. This will incentivize an estimated additional energy generation capacity of 1300 Megawatts (MW) alone in geothermal -- thereby doubling Kenya's total present capacity.
Kenya's strategy is not just about increased energy generation but also about increasing access to energy in rural areas, providing an important starting point for lifting people out of poverty and diversifying livelihoods.
UNEP has partnered with the government to assess the value of the Mau forest complex, which over the past few decades has lost some 30 per cent of its cover. It is estimated that the services this forest generates---water for around a dozen rivers systems that for example feed the Maasai Mara and Lake Nakuru; moisture for the tea industry and carbon storage---are worth in total up to $1.5 billion a year to the Kenyan economy. These estimates have assisted in tipping the balance in favour of restoration rather than degradation of this key natural asset.