As executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Achim Steiner has been at the forefront of international conferences on environment and sustainable development, including the Rio+20 conference in June 2012.
SciDev.Net caught up with him at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS) in February to discuss the role of science in the post-2015 agenda, and meeting sustainable development goals (SDGs).
Steiner also discusses the progress on SDGs and plans to help developing countries achieve them.
How do you see the role of science and technology in the post-2015 agenda?
I think, even more central and significant than in the past. Science allows us to understand the nature of environmental change and also the opportunities for addressing it. Science has allowed us to better appreciate the scale and nature of change that one must manage, in the climate change arena, or food security, or fish stocks in the ocean.
Science is also the frontier that allows us to develop new technologies and new management systems. In work of the UNEP, science has allowed us to identify short-lived climate pollutants, black carbon pollution, air pollution, or troposphere ozone, and methane; both as human health issues and also as major global warming drivers.
How can science contribute specifically to SDGs?
We do not yet know what those goals may look like. But we do know the areas in which the world has to come together through the principles of universality and integration. Take, for instance, agriculture. Many argue that we must produce 70 per cent more food by 2050 to feed the world population. So, we are looking at the science of soil fertility, and of waters. Developing the agricultural economy along the lines of last 100 years, and adding another 70 per cent of food production is not viable, sustainable, or doable.
We also need to look at how technology can reduce food losses. One-third of what we produce is lost between the farm and the final point of consumption, either because of absence of storage facilities, or because of pests or losses during transport.
So, if have a goal relating to food security, science and technology can help address reducing food losses and develop more sustainable production techniques.
What has been the progress on the SDGs?
We should all be heartened by the intensity with which the discussion has unfolded since the Rio summit. Indeed, just a year and a half later, the world is in the midst of evolving the next paradigm and agenda for sustainable development.
The open working group convened by the UN member-states has become part of global conversation. The UN has reached out literally to hundreds of thousands of people to contribute to this discussion. We are all confident that we will indeed have a new set of SDGs, by 2015, as part of the post-2015 development agenda.
After the Rio summit, we were left wondering whether member-states will really take this direction up. And the fact that they have taken it up not only with great speed but also with a very high degree of global engagement means that we have a good opportunity here to see new priorities being set.
We also have an opportunity to recognise that developing nations have needs and priority agendas, and that they are part of the global sustainability framework.
How do you plan to link the news SDGs to the unfinished agenda of MDGs?
The UN has been very clear from the beginning that we must accelerate our efforts till 2015 in achieving MDGs. So, I think, we will still see some significant progress being made. The unfinished agenda will be part of the SDGs. How poverty eradication can be addressed, maternal health, education for the girl child are targets and indicators that will also find their way into the SDGs framework.
One of the criticisms about unmet MDGs is the lack of integration and coordination. How does UNEP plan to deal with it?
We in the UNEP argue very strongly for not aiming for a set of goals that are based on advocacy agendas or single-issue goals.
The DNA, if you want, of SDGs that emerged after Rio, is an integrated approach. We know today, that the premise of economic or social progress at the expense of the environment, or environmental protection at the expense of people and people's livelihoods, is not a viable proposition. We need to find an integrated approach.
What will be the benchmarks or indicators to measure the progress of SDGs?
Well, that conversation is now happening, and many great minds across the world and universities, ministries, NGOs and the private sector are addressing themselves to it. We in UNEP are focussing on what the international community has already agreed on. We have 40 years of international environmental governance, agreements, conventions, and protocols. We have summarised the global environmental goals on which the world community has reached consensus.
These must be the baselines from which we then define the ambitions to move forward. We will see thousands of proposals for indicators and targets emerging (from the conversation). The challenge will be for governments to try and identify how they can merge these suggestions into a strategic set of indicators that countries will feel comfortable about, and will feel obligated to work towards, and that allows transformational change to occur in the coming years and decades.
We are confronted with significant challenges that require us to rethink our economies, and our production and consumption methods; and address poverty eradication and equity issues.
What systems can be put in place to ensure that the targets can be met?
The UN is not a policing entity. We are empowered and mandated through the member-states to facilitate and forge legally binding agreements. But at the end of the day, it is the commitment of member-states; and the spirit, idea and mandate of the UN that matters. We cannot force countries to implement them. If we agree on SDGs, and a country signs up to it, then it is the first point of guarantee of commitment to implement these goals.
Also, more and more, we will see a world of social networks and citizens’ demands for more transparency and information. It will be the citizens who will ask their governments, parliaments, and courts and their countries to implement something they have signed.
What are the plans to help developing countries meet the goals?
This discussion continues to remain important. Clearly the north-south dimension of cooperation, technology transfer, means of implementation, and financing will become a very critical part of this global conversation.
We face enormous challenges, both in the short-term because of the financial crisis; but also in the longer term because the model of transformation is increasingly being challenged. It is being challenged by the necessity of having north-south cooperation as a foundation; the rapid growth of economies in the south, and the importance of financial and capital markets.
Governments, whether in the developed or developing world, will struggle increasingly to make some of these investments on a big scale if they cannot attract private capital. It is not to replace public financing, but we know that government budgets will not be sufficient to make the kind of transformative investments in our energy systems, transport systems, and urban infrastructure, that are needed.
UNEP is working on a report that will enquire into the greening of financial systems, where there is a great scope for investment. Why is it not crowding into this space of new energy, low-carbon energy, or public transport systems? What can we do also, with the banking and regulatory system, to address what clearly has enormous potential? It has just started and it will report in 18 months.