28 Jun 2019 Speech Climate change

Address to the Permanent Representatives Committee of the African Union

Your Excellency Mr Ossama Abdelkhalek, Chair of Permanent Representatives,

Your Excellency Ms. Josefa Sacko, African Union Commissioner for Rural Economy and Agriculture

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

It is a great honour for me to stand here before you today to deliver my first statement out of my Headquarters as the new UN Environment Programme Executive Director.  I thank you for this opportunity given to me despite your very tight agenda, a week away from the Niamey Summit.

I feel very privileged to address you today, in the diplomatic capital of Africa, as the Head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

I am here to listen to you to better understand your priorities and guidance on how we could better serve African member states in addressing environmental challenges with the increasing climate change.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. I come to you with five basic messages.

My first message is that we are in a unique time in the history of our planet. A time when the choices we make, or do not make, will forever determine the future of life on earth. Never before has humanity faced the enormity of this responsibility. And never before have environmental challenges presented humanity with existential questions of this scale and dimension: Climate change, desertification, land degradation, biodiversity loss, ecosystem stress, water scarcity and pollution.

Climate change affects us all. It impacts the very foundation of our societies. From droughts, to floods, to harvest failures.

Africa did not cause these changes, but Africa stands to be amongst the most impacted. An impact already felt. But no region and no country is immune. Heat waves and unheard of forest fires occur with ever more increasing intensity across the world, in Europe; in the Americas; and across the world. Climate change will affect us all.

For too long have we taken nature for granted. We have assumed that season would follow season. We have relied on the continued generosity of nature’s bounty. We have assumed that droughts were an “exception” and not part of the norm. But what we need to understand is that climate change is here, right now. And rain failures, greater intensity of storms, floods and droughts, fires and dust storms, and the associated human impacts, are fast becoming our “new normal”.

My second message is that environmental sustainability is a necessary condition for societal peace and stability. When we look through the lens of environmental sustainability, we see that while conflict and strife are rooted in many causes, one cause, which is often overlooked, is the degrading environment. Indeed, when we analyze conflicts more deeply, we most often find that environmental causes lie at the root of the initial societal tensions. Resource scarcity, competition for land, for water, population movements are caused by drought or harvest failures. And so it should not be a surprise that the countries the most impacted by insecurity, are also those most deeply impacted by environmental challenges. From Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Sahelian countries, to the Horn of Africa.

But the environment is also very forgiving.   Invest in the environment, protect fragile soils, allow for biomass to recover, protect water sources, provide alternative options for communities to fuelwood, and the environment forgives us our trespasses and bounces back.

Indeed, in most cases, a healthy and thriving environment, also means healthy, peaceful and stable societies.

This means, therefore, that sound environmental foundations provide a key ingredient for the pathway to secure societal stability, peace and development.

But we are at a critical moment in the history of our planet. Through our actions, we have put the very sustainability of our planet in peril. But the good news is that the health of our environment and what’s at stake is more in public conscience than ever before. The good news is that politicians, leaders, the media and our children are waking up to the imperative of environmental sustainability. There is a broad understanding that the science is definitive. And that we have a limited window of opportunity to steer humanity towards sustainability. And with this realization have also come astonishing human capacity for innovation and imagination towards finding solutions.

We cannot achieve peace and prosperity without safeguarding the planet. And indeed, these are the very elements that are enshrined in the Sustainable Development Goals. Articulated in the Rio +20 outcome document entitled “The Future We Want”, in the 2030 Agenda as well as the in the Agenda 2063. These agreed documents will continue to be our guiding force.

Following through on this pathway will require political will and courage, collective commitment and engagement, strategic partnerships and, critically, sustainable and predictable financing flows.

And this leads me to my third message. The focus on Africa. In my life I have had the privilege and honor to spend much time living and working on the African continent and, I have to tell you, that I am so pleased to be back on the continent once more, at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi. To me, this continent represents the future and the promise of tomorrow.

And enshrined in this promise, is the push by African leaders for economic transformation and regional integration. Because transformation and integration are the two ingredients critical to the future of the planet. Such transformations must be based on a healthy, clean and productive environment.

With the deadline of the SDGs looming close, we must therefore accelerate the implementation of the global agendas, while fostering strategic partnerships towards the fulfillment of commitments made to Africa, a continent that, despite its low emissions, continues to suffer the most the impacts of climate change.  

And while the continent continues to tackle a number of environmental challenges, including environmental degradation, impact of climate change, pollution, air quality, lack of adequate and affordable energy, we must also remember that the African continent is home to some of the world’s greatest riches including 30 percent of the world’s mineral reserves, 8 percent of the world’s natural gas, 40 percent of its gold and some of the world’s most unique and important ecosystems and species diversity, including the Congo Basin Forest which makes up the second largest forest basin in the world.

Further, of course, Africa has inspired other regions through its environmental policy coordinating mechanism, the African Ministerial Conference on Environment (AMCEN), which has ensured a coordinated and integrated African position in global environmental negotiations and policy debates.

And this brings me to my fourth point. Your UN Environment Programme. The UN Environment Programme has a proud history of horizon-watching, of identifying waves that are coming to our shores, and of supporting nations to come to agreement on some of the biggest planetary challenges we face.

UNEP has a long standing partnership with Africa through a series of different fronts including:

  1. Continuous support to the African Group of Negotiators on Climate Change through the AMCEN and the Committee of African Heads of States on Climate Change;
  2. Support to the development of the Africa-wide strategy to combat the illegal trade of African wild fauna and flora;
  3. Supporting African countries to develop and implement integrated waste management strategies and plans as a response to the urbanizations challenges

The current UN reform process offers UNEP tremendous opportunities of infusing the environmental agenda into the broader UN development and the UN peace and security agenda.

As I embark on this journey as UNEP Executive Director, I will continue to listen and re-build the confidence of Member States and to systematically seek member states’ guidance, leadership and ownership of UNEP flagship initiatives.

While doing so, I will make sure that accountability, transparency, budgets and programme clarity will be at the heart of my agenda.  

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

This September, the Secretary General of the United Nations will convene a Climate Action Summit with the intent of mobilizing a collective leap forward in ambition for climate action. Nature-based solutions undertaken in and by Member States, will make an important contribution to the Summit in demonstrating cost-effective actions and cost-effective solutions from the natural world with multiple benefits for ecosystem restoration; biodiversity; livelihoods; for emissions reduction and greater resilience.

UNEP will be honored to partner with African member states in the follow up and implementation of the Climate Action Summit recommendations.

And this brings me to my fifth and final point. The collaboration between the African Union and its Commission and the United Nations Environment Programme. Beyond the Climate Action Summit, I see the following fronts as key areas of partnership with African countries, as we work to support to states in the implementation of Agenda 2030 and the 2063 Agenda:

  • Building strategic partnership with relevant partners including private sector and civil society organizations. 
  • Engaging African countries in identifying best ways to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change through tangible Africa lead and owned initiatives
  • Mainstreaming environmental sustainability on conflicts prevention and peace building processes in African diplomacy.
  • Working with African governments to ensure a air quality monitoring in African cities.
  • Developing sustainable financing mechanisms in partnership with member states and the private sector.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

I have sought to underline, first, that we find ourselves in a highly unusual time period, a time never seen before, in which our own actions will determine the very trajectory of our planet. Secondly, I have stressed that environmental sustainability is a necessary ingredient for peace and prosperity. I have noted that while Africa faces a number of environmental challenges, the continent also holds the promise for the future. And I have mentioned that UNEP has a strong and proud history of collaboration with the African states and with the African regional agenda.  And finally, I have underlined that we look forward to deepening and expanding that current collaboration in the service of your environmental priorities.

Excellencies. With your strong support and guidance, and in close and trusted collaboration, we will look forward to deepen our collaboration and to supporting African member states, as together we work for a more sustainable future.

Thank you very much.

Merci beaucoup



Asante sana

by Inger Andersen, Executive Director, United Nations Environment Programme