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Steering Environmental Issues Back on the Political Agenda

Klaus Töpfer has directed the U.N. Environmental Program since 1998. In an interview with DW-WORLD, Germany’s former environmental minister explains how environmental issues can get back on the world’s political agenda.


Klaus Töpfer is confident about the success of the earth summit in Johannesburg

At the end of August the largest international conference on the environment will convene in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is the most important meeting of environmentalists and politicians since Rio in 1992.

In the weeks leading up to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, environmental leaders around the world will be reflecting on many of the issues on the conference’s agenda. But many are also asking what the summit will actually achieve and how much of an impact it will have on the way countries deal with their environment.

Klaus Töpfer, the director for the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), is an outspoken proponent of the conference. The former environmental minister under Helmut Kohl’s Christian Democrats (1994-1998) is convinced that -- regardless of changing political parties and international conflicts -- environmental issues should remain an integral part of global policy-making discussions. In an interview with DW-WORLD, Töpfer expressed his firm belief in the success of the Johannesburg Summit.

Interview with Klaus Töpfer:

In the aftermath of September 11th, the focus of world politics is on the fight against terror and on security. How can environmental issues be brought back on the agenda of international politics?

Environmental politics are an absolute necessity in the fight against those conflicts. We are aware that to overcome poverty – the most toxic element in the world – we need to combine economic development with environmental considerations. We at the United Nations Environmental Program therefore decided to change our motto to "UNEP: Environment for Development". We believe that environment is instrumental in development. And development, on the other hand, is instrumental in decreasing tensions – the conflicts in the world.

Therefore, more than ever, this Johannesburg summit is important for the world. And I sincerely believe that this summit is something like a peace summit in that we have to do whatever is possible to make it a success.

How could the conference in Johannesburg achieve these goals in concrete terms?

Rio de Janeiro 10 years ago gave us clear and wonderfully visionary texts and declarations. Unfortunately, it was not clear enough how to implement these goals. And therefore Johannesburg must be the summit of implementation and not of another declaration. That means we need concrete targets, concrete timetables and concrete conclusions with regard to the means of implementation.

One example is the need for developing renewable energies. Let’s make a concrete target out of it and say 10 percent, 12 percent, 15 percent of energy consumed worldwide should come from renewable sources in the next 10 years. This is a concrete target and timetable. If we agree on this, then Johannesburg really makes a difference.

Are these targets realistic?

I think so, yes. We have to be realistic. What is really missing in this world of globalization right now is accountability and responsibility. I don’t want to go into day-to-day politics. But you see the decrease of credibility, for example, in the economic field. You see all the developments now on the stock markets, that people are convinced that this is unaccountable behavior. So it’s important that we go into this summit saying: This is not only the far-reaching target we need. But this is also achievable. And we want to monitor it, we want to benchmark it. Then people can say: They’re not only going to another conference, another summit where they spend a lot of money and wield a lot of papers.

I really believe more than ever that in Johannesburg it’s the clear signal that’s important: Don’t be visionary alone, do it as well, but link it with concrete and achievable targets.

Don’t you sometimes become frustrated in light of the U.S. administration’s policy, which doesn’t seem to really care about environmental issues?

Frustration is not a reaction. Frustration is also not a chance to solve problems. We have to analyze the problems and ask what is possible to do. And the first and foremost: do your "homework". It’s good, for example, that the EU ratified the Kyoto Protocol. That this was done in Japan, as well, and that now Russia has also started the ratification process, so that the Kyoto Protocol can enter into force.

We see in the U.S. that there’s much more going on than one or the other is aware of. You can see differences between the different states. If you go, for example, to California, you’ll see what is happening there, and in other states as well, and that’s fascinating, that’s quite forward-looking. And also if you see this on the federal level, there is a new stimulation for renewable energy, there is a new stimulation for increasing energy efficiency.

All this seems to me not to be enough. But they are steps in the right direction and I sincerely hope that it will be very clear in the near future that doing this does not weaken the economic basis, but strengthens it.

And which means of control and sanctions should be put in place to make governments respect the environment and obey international environmental agreements?

Indeed, we have to do much more in this field. We have quite a lot of different conventions, legally binding, ratified by parliaments. We have protocols – legally binding, ratified by parliaments. But the mechanisms of enforcement and compliance are weak. There was a lot of discussion in the Kyoto Protocol. There is a solution, which is better than what one or the other expected. But we have to do more in this field. So let’s go further in globalizing these control instruments.

Historical and cultural traditions lead to different approaches to environmental care. Japan, for example, doesn’t want to cease whale hunting because it regards whale fishing as part of its cultural tradition. How could a common denominator be defined in international environmental politics?

First and foremost, it’s a very important and a good development that more cultural diversity is integrated into the topic of sustainable development. People don’t want to be linked with their language; they want to be linked with their behavior, their traditions. If you see the development of indigenous knowledge, how can we handle this wisdom of indigenous people with regard to medicine and the knowledge of biodiversity? These are positive signals that cultural diversity is a stabilizing factor for globalization and exactly this is necessary.

I’m very happy that UNEP can have an event in Johannesburg under the title "Cultural Diversity, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development." And I am extremely happy that President Chirac and other presidents accepted our invitation and we will do a lot in this direction.

Oliver Schilling conducted this interview.

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