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UN ecology chiefs calls on World Summit to put environment front and centre

UN ecology chiefs calls on World Summit to put environment front and centre

Declaring that the “the environment is not a luxury, not a Gucci accessory bag or a fancy silk tie affordable only when all other issues have been resolved,” the head of the United Nations ecological agency today called on this week’s World Summit to give the environment its due priority as the key to human development.

“It is our sincere hope that when heads of state meet in New York that they put ‘natural or nature's capital’ right up there with human and financial capital,” UN Environment Programme (UNEP) executive director Klaus Toepfer said in a statement about the largest ever gathering of world leaders starting at UN Headquarters on Wednesday.

“Anything less will undermine our attempts to defeat poverty and deliver sustainable development and will short-change current and future generations,” he added, stressing that significant, targeted investments in the environment will go a long way towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that seek to slash a host of socio-economic ills, such as extreme poverty, hunger, and preventable diseases, by 2015.

The environment “is the oxygen breathing life into all the Goals,” he said. “It is the red ribbon running around our common aspirations for a healthier, more stable and just world. It is also critical to the economies of countries and regions, a fact that governments have yet to fully take on board but which they ignore at their economic peril.”

Mr. Toepfer cited a long list of supporting evidence, putting actual dollars and cents value to the gains earned from properly managing nature and the losses entailed by its degradation.

In one example, New York City Council, faced with supplying safer drinking water for its 9 million customers, saved between $3 billion to $5 billion by investing $1 billion to better manage river banks, forests, agriculture and other ecosystems to reduce pollution into the Catskill/Delaware river system, instead of sinking up to $6 billion into filtration machinery.

In another example the recently published Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and its spin-off reports show that intact tropical mangroves, coastal ecosystems that are nurseries for fish, natural pollution filters and coastal defences, are worth around $1,000 a hectare, but when cleared for shrimp farms their value falls to around $200 a hectare.

In a third case studies show that the value of the timber and fuel-wood from a forest is worth less than a third when compared with the value of their services such as water-shed protection and absorption of pollutants like greenhouse gases.

Studies in the Amazon by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in the United States have concluded that for every 1 per cent increase in deforestation, there is an 8 per cent increase in the number of malaria-carrying mosquitoes.

This has implications for economic development as well as human health. It is calculated that Africa's gross national product (GNP) in 2000 could have been 25 per cent or $100 billion higher if malaria had been eradicated 35 years ago.

In a related development, the heads of five UN-backed treaties said Summit participants must take action to conserve and use biological diversity sustainably, and distribute its benefits equitably if the world is to achieve the MDGs.

“All of us rely on biodiversity, directly or indirectly for our health and welfare. We must ensure that biodiversity will be available for us and for all future generations,” they said in a joint news release.

The five biodiversity-related treaties are: the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the Convention on Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS), the Convention on Wetlands (Ramsar) and the World Heritage Centre (WHC).