‘Poverty is world’s most toxic element’

Climatic change is the major environmental problem the Earth is currently facing, the director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), Klaus Toepfer, said last week, on a visit to Athens to attend a conference. In an interview with Kathmerini, Toepfer said that while there was a need for an international alliance against terrorism, it was equally important for nations to work together to fight poverty and hunger. How difficult is it to get countries to work together on environmental targets? You cannot convince other people to sign a treaty to protect the ozone layer if you cannot really prove that the ozone layer is really being destroyed and the reason for this is that you are using specific chemicals. You cannot convince people that they have to act against climate change if you cannot show that climate change is a scientifically proven development. Therefore, the organization responsible has to come to a very clear assessment of the state of the environment. This year is the year of fresh water and everybody knows that if we are not able to make better use of fresh water, to make conventions possible, then we will have tensions, conflicts, maybe even wars. Therefore one precondition is assessment on a reliable basis. In the political agenda of the 1990s, was the environment the priority that it should have been? In Europe it used to be the number one issue, while in the developing countries, people were always, first and foremost, aware of the need for economic development before this «luxury.» Now, it is nearly the other way around. In the developing world, people are aware that if you cannot fight for a safe environment, you cannot overcome economic problems. Our motto in UNEP therefore is «environment for development;» not environment as an end in itself but as an instrument for development, for overcoming poverty. We always emphasize that the most toxic element in the world is poverty, next to the consumption pattern of the developed world. Some months ago, we finalized a new convention on chemicals. It is very, very difficult because the interests of the different partners are totally different. Persistent organic pollutants are something like a traveler without a passport because they travel around the world undetected. The place where the problem is generated does not always coincide with the place where the impact is. Such as what is happening with climate change? Yes, for example Africa has 14 percent of the global population but their share of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is just 3.2 percent. However, they are suffering quite intensively from climate change. Which environmental problem do you consider most important right now? Climate change is – and will be for quite some time – the most important because it is linked with a lot of other issues: water, the overall weather pattern and abnormal weather conditions, floods, droughts, consequences for biodiversity, which of course again influences climatic change, desertification. You cannot say that by fighting climate (change) in the long term you will solve the water problem. This year we are going through the whole chain regarding fresh water from supply to demand, to question how we can make better use of this resource, how to increase sewage water treatment capacity, water-saving technologies, what is necessary with regard to agreements in water catchment areas. So, this is very high on our agenda, especially, but not only this year. Are you optimistic for the future of the planet, the way we’re going right now? I believe solutions will be available but they don’t arrive like manna from heaven. We really have to change consumption and production patterns – that is one of the main topics of the Greek presidency of the European Union. What came out of Johannesburg quite clearly is that we have to be aware that without cooperation on a regional and global level, it will be very difficult to avoid further disasters. It is becoming clearer that the environment must be integrated into management. In the developed countries, a lot was done in the past but this is not a reason for complacency. We cannot sit back and say that now others are responsible. Our emissions of CO2 are still of concern for the whole world. Do you think we’re doing well environmentally regarding the Olympic Games? I cannot arrive at a final assessment. I know that here there is a lot of discussion. Of course, this is not always fully in line with what the one or the other person might expect. People are aware and interested, not only passively sitting back but really asking the responsible people about what they are doing. I believe that this is a good development.