The mosaic landscape, before and after, Brazil

Achim Steiner

Achim Steiner
UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme

The UN General Assembly unanimously elected Achim Steiner as the Executive Director of UNEP on 16 March 2006. A German national born in Brazil in 1961, he took an MA at the University of London specializing in development economics, regional planning, and international development and environment policy. In 1998 he was appointed Secretary-General of the World Commission on Dams, based in South Africa, where he managed a global program of work to bring together the public sector, civil society and the private sector in a global policy process on dams and development. He served as Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) from 2001 to 2006.


Investing in sustainability

Globalization is one of the defining issues of our time. And the question is not whether the phenomenon is good or bad, but whether through incentives and partnerships we can deliver the widest possible benefits of globalization at the minimum risk to our planet and thus to its people.

It is easy to spell out the risks to the environment: if rising living standards and inefficient methods of production and consumption intensify pressure on our natural resources, globalization could become a spectacular failure rather than a way of raising standards of living around the world. The loss of services from ecosystems is already a significant barrier to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty, hunger, and disease. Of the 24 essential services provided by ecosystems - ranging from food production to water quality and availability, disease management and climate regulation - 15 are being used unsustainably and persistently eroded.

The answer must be to invest more in the sustainable use and delivery of ecosystem services. We must find ways to shift our methods of production away from heedless consumption of raw materials and finished goods towards more careful resource conservation and management.

This should not be misunderstood as advocacy for pouring large amounts of public money into environmental conservation. A natural filtration system such as a wetland can purify water more cheaply and effectively than an expensive human-built treatment plant. A forest reserve quickly recycles large volumes of carbon dioxide at less cost than gasifying and storing coal wastes. By convincing society of these advantages, we can open the door to economic investment in ecosystems and everyone benefits: humans, the economy and nature. The latest warning of global warming from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a clarion call for policy-makers to get off the fence and take urgent action, but it is not a counsel of despair. Through partnerships and alliances the investment we have to make in sustainability need not cost us the earth.

Businesses can clearly play a vital role in the sustainable use and delivery of ecosystem services. Development organizations can ensure they obtain the best scientific information and advice, particularly about pricing goods and services from the environment, before taking action. Environmental organizations can ensure they engage with governments, business and civil society in ways that provide real options to nations that are seeking to battle the scourges of poverty, ill-health, malnutrition and underdevelopment.

A globalized world is a decentralized world. Yet each major city can act as a node in the extended network of global policy. For those living and working outside Switzerland it still means coming regularly to Geneva. Many of our partners are here. This is where the world's information and expertise habitually gathers. Here is where international initiatives frequently start or are nurtured. Geneva is where global programs can be often most effectively managed.

Switzerland has for many years been a country in the center of international affairs including the environment and in doing so has in many ways shaped the modern Geneva of today - a city that is and will remain an important part of the global imperative for sustainable development.