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Asia

Germany's Toepfer Prepares to Hand Over UNEP Reins

After eight years as head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Germany's Klaus Toepfer will step down at the end of the month. One of his countrymen could succeed him.

Toepfer brought UNEP to global spotlights

Toepfer brought UNEP to global spotlights

When Toepfer came to Nairobi, Kenya-based UNEP office in 1998, officials at UN headquarters in New York already had plans to close down the African satellite bureau. But instead of clearing the house, Toepfer, a member of Germany's Christian Democratic party, who had served as his country's construction and environment minister, managed to turn UNEP into a widely respected agency with 3,000 employees.

"Reactions by governments and relations with non-governmental organizations and the private business sector have shown me that we're taken seriously again," he said, according to German public broadcaster WDR. "It's possible to say -- without starting to swoon -- that we stand at the beginning of a renaissance of environmental policy."

Toepfer is widely credited for playing a crucial role in putting the Kyoto Protocol into effect last year -- that aims to halt global warming by reducing gas emissions from cars, power plants and factories -- despite resistance from the US, which refuses to ratify the document.

Energy alternatives, efficient use crucial

He sees environmental protection increasingly as an economic issue since rapid growth in developing countries such as China, India, Brazil and South Africa is followed by a dramatic increase in energy needs.

"It makes economic sense to do everything to broaden the energy sources that are available," Toepfer said, adding that the efficient use of energy also has to be promoted.

Having lived in Africa, Toepfer has been able to witness many of the world's environmental problems first hand.

"If you drive two hours by car from here, you're in the middle of an unbelievable dryness, famine, where people are dying," he said. "We see that this has a lot to do with the misuse of nature, with deforestation, with the destruction of wetlands, with erosion, etc."

Steiner to follow Toepfer?

In other words, a lot of work is waiting for Toepfer's successor who might come from Germany. Achim Steiner, a Brazil-born political scientist and economist who currently heads the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in Geneva, is respected by many, including Toepfer, and is thought to have a good chance to take over when the current head exits.

"Achim Steiner surely is a very good, experienced man," Toepfer said, adding that Steiner did a brilliant job of managing IUCN, which brings together 82 States, 111 government agencies and more than 800 non-governmental organizations.

A decision will be made soon at UN headquarters.