A Time for Action: Opening speech on behalf of Ms. Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme

delivered by Mr. Peter Usher, Manager, Atmosphere Programme

It is my great pleasure to welcome you on behalf of UNEP's Executive Director to this Conference on National Action to Mitigate Global Climate Change.

Ms. Dowdeswell regrets that she is unable to be here in person. Other commitments require her to be elsewhere. I will speak on her behalf in the knowledge of an intense commitment by UNEP and its Executive Director to protecting the atmospheric environment from unacceptable irreversible harm.

The countdown towards the coming into force of the Framework Convention on Climate Change is completed. Soon, States - Parties to the Convention will be required not only to meet the commitments contained in the Convention, but also to examine their commitment to reversing the changes which people have made to the atmosphere over the last century. Governments, in deciding how to act, will have to determine what is in their best interest and what should be initiated for the communal good of all the earth's peoples, both present populations and future, and the quality of their environment.

The objective of the convention is clear and desirable: it is to achieve stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system. What appears not clear, is how to determine what is dangerous and what level of increased greenhouse gas concentrations represent the moment when manipulation of the atmospheric mix exposes us to collective unacceptable risk.

Matters appeared relatively simple two decades ago when the greenhouse gas syndrome was first introduced to communities sensitized to a global environment in disrepair and with a collective will to right the wrongs of decades of environmental exploitation - disappearing forests, chemically contaminated rivers and lakes, a shrinking biodiversive base and expanding deserts. Sustainability rather than exploitation; preservation instead of extermination; were already emerging as the watchwords of the future.

However, such fertile ground was too easily infused with indiscretion. Even traditionally conservative science gave way to hyperbole. "Unprecedented change; the greatest risk for mankind second only to thermonuclear war;" were some of the less responsible statements embellishing the doomsday scenarios uncritically accepted at the time.

Hans Christian Andersen, in his morality story for children, tells of an Emperor tricked into appearing unclothed under the delusion that he was finely dressed. It required the perception of a young boy to uncover the truth and expose the fraud. Similarly, there are now those who would point at those early exaggerations and dismiss climate change as a fantasy, or worse, as a conspiracy among pecunious scientists to extract research funds to address a fashionable rather than a necessary cause. There is an orchestrated backlash against the climate change and ozone layer modification issues. Selective interpretation of scientific research results are being used to question the political correctness of current science and in doing so, has touched as responsive a chord in the greenhouse gas producers as did the climate doomsayers beget among the environmental community a decade ago.

And what is the truth? Is there a climate crisis or a climate conspiracy?

Happily, the truth can easily be revealed. Exercising a unique role in international affairs the United Nations and its specialized agencies specifically, in this case, the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization established in 1988 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC assessments, first in 1990, updated in 1992 and a second due in 1995 represents the consensus viewpoint of hundreds, even thousands of the world's best atmospheric scientists and technical experts. The Panel's opinion combines the best predictions of future climates tempered with the full range of uncertainties, unknowns and imponderables which qualify them.

Yet, it is the attempt to provide a balanced view that is being used by the climate change naysayers to advocate the continued and uncontrolled emissions of greenhouse gases and ozone layer depleting substances into our atmosphere.

In the passage of astronomical time our present benign climate has occupied but a moment. A short span in which people have been shaped and matured by their environment and its development. There is evidence of other climates to demonstrate the limited robustness of an atmospheric system sensitive to planetary shifts and natural variations in the gaseous mix which describe the atmosphere at any one time. Yet there are those who would have us do nothing because we cannot describe with complete certainty the consequences of changing the composition of the atmosphere.

The probable consequences of greenhouse gas accumulation are global warming, climate change and sea level rise. Estimates of the average global change are made with some confidence and should be enough to persuade us towards caution. Copenhagen's famous mermaid is not about to experience an involuntary return to the ocean but much of the world's low-lying coastline and islands could be subjected to pressures that will be expensive to counter if we permit unregulated greenhouse gas emissions. We should not be astonished that some of the louder voices raised against stringent emission controls emanate from those regions and industries identified as the largest fossil fuel producers and energy consumers. We should be disturbed however by the timidity with which firm environmental action is embraced despite the likelihood that many no-regrets policies equate to no- or low-cost contributions to meeting the Convention's objectives. From all environment viewpoints, enhancement of forest CO2 sinks with its benefits for biodiversity and soil conservation; employment of energy efficiency techniques both at the demand and delivery sides, the introduction of simple pollution controls and the development and employment of renewable energy sources make sound economic sense.

A few countries have already set themselves commendable targets. For example, Denmark is committed to reducing its carbon-dioxide emissions by 20 per cent before the year 2005. Other European nations and Canada have made similar pledges. It is a brave beginning but this alone will not approach the objective of global atmospheric stabilization. If we should wish to secure this at today's levels then in the words of the IPCC, "Immediate reductions of over 60% in the net emissions from human activities of long lived gases" are needed.

Even the most committed of environmental activists will concede the difficulties and expense of achieving this goal. The very fabric of societal behaviour would have to undergo vivid change and the pace of future development would be obliged to stop or dramatically slow. Historical responsibility for the increase in greenhouse gas emissions and concentrations lie with the already industrialized countries. In mitigation, it can be said that they could not have been aware of the consequences. But ignorance of the law, even the laws of physics cannot constitute a full defence and now that emerging countries wish to build their development upon a foundation of fossil-fuel based energy use, who can deny them when few practical alternatives exist?

The situation provides opportunities for those who urge minimal response based on the degree of uncertainty of how the climate system will actually respond to the atmospheric changes that we measure. It is essential to remove those uncertainties. Scientific research will do so over time but perhaps not for a generation. For environmentalists, our responsibility is clear. Uncertainty is not a reason for adopting risky policies until there is a clear signal of harm done that would be akin to driving a motor car at full speed in fog and hoping not to be involved in an accident. Polluters, of whatever kind, are guilty until proven innocent. It is not the responsibility of UNEP or the IPCC to establish harm but instead it is beholden upon those that emit greenhouse gases to justify claims of minimal damage.

The Climate Convention requires nations to take global warming seriously. There is a commitment to make national inventories of sources and sinks of greenhouse gases. UNEP is supporting the initiative by facilitating the development of a common methodology for conducting the assessments and its testing in a set of country studies in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

These studies will improve our understanding of the apportionment of carbon among the oceans, atmosphere and the biosphere. It can also indicate national contributions to the atmospheric budget of greenhouse gases or even net emissions per capita. Such allocations need to be viewed with caution. There is little purpose in demanding full reparations for past actions by the largest emitters. Logic confirms the impossibility of such expectations. Equally, a frugal use of fossil fuels by under-developed countries in the past cannot be a license for future unbridled non-renewable energy development and use. The net result would be a continued emission growth with the atmosphere sensitive only to the quantity of release not to the location of the source. We have a common cause that will require a cooperative solution that will stretch all our capabilities to the utmost, and, even at best, will result in eventual stabilization of the atmosphere at a higher level of greenhouse gas concentrations than is desirable.

The question of what climate change means to you as an individual, or as part of a community, or even a nation, is far less simply stated than identifying the global consequences. To focus more clearly on this, requires another kind of country study.

I would encourage nations to undertake national impact studies which would attempt to identify the implications of a climate change, to which we are already committed as a consequence of greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere over the past hundred years. The degree to which we are able or willing to limit the amount of future climate change and sea level rise is still to be determined. Science demands stringent controls now if changes are to be kept to a minimum. Controls of the magnitude required are not on the agenda of many countries and accordingly, we will have to adapt to a new climate. Forced adaptation through a lack of preparation is not a responsible option and climate impact studies are needed to identify the range of strategies each country or region might employ to adapt to changing yields of food crops, alterations in water supply and availability, and sea level invasion of beaches, coastal wetlands, port facilities and dwellings. Not at all the changes are disadvantageous of course -- less cold winters, reduced ice and snow damage, perhaps even a bounty of food in formerly unproductive areas. Climate is a resource and we must take full advange of the benefits of change as well as protecting ourselves against the excesses, a climate out of control might bring.

This meeting will discuss the economics of climate change, particularly the costs of mitigation. Country studies that identify the least cost options for this, not only benefit the nations financially, but also contribute to an effective international programme to reduce, as much as possible, unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions, including the newly industrializing nations. Whether the contributing mechanisms will include tradeable permits, debt swaps for carbon sink enhancement or carbon taxes will still have to be determined. It will be however important to convince these developing countries with doubts that joint implementation is not a conjuring trick by the already industrialized world to deprive the poorer countries from realizing their development destiny.

The Convention process is proving the most effective means of international cooperation towards solving environmental problems. UNEP has had a long and successful experience in treaty development and implementation. UNEP is the secretariat for the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora; the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer and its Montreal Protocol; the Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals; the Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal; and it is the Interim Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Agenda 21 noted the need for the most efficient use of resources including the possible co-location of secretariats established in the future. UNEP is fully supportive of this view and, given its broad overall responsibility assigned to it under Agenda 21, UNEP encourages enhanced collaboration between it and the Convention secretariats to improve implementation of the Conventions and efficient operation of the secretariats.

The Conference of the Parties for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet next year to determine, among other matters, the form and function of the secretariat and the future location of the Climate Convention. The Parties could do well to consider UNEP in this regard. UNEP's experience in administrating Conventions and in environmental law is well known. Its ability to provide programme support is also advantageous - after all it is one of the parents of the IPCC and it implements the World Climate Impact Assessment and Response Strategies Programme, which includes a multi-million dollar climate-related country study programme. Whatever the Parties decide, UNEP pledges to work closely with them and in support of their needs. In return, it urges countries to give unreserved support to an environment in danger. It is not wrong to seek advantages as a condition of supporting an atmospheric treaty, provided op course, we do not short change the environment in doing so. We have one earth, let us protect it as best as we can. After all, we have to live, or die, with the consequences.


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