Environment takes a back seat at United Nations Millennium Summit

As other issues weighed more heavily on the minds of most world leaders, the environment issues barely got a look-in at the world’s largest ever gathering of world leaders.

Although almost all of the UN’s 189 member states gathered in New York between 6-9 September to discuss matters of global importance in the new millennium, the overriding focus of the summit was the future role of the United Nations, and the majority of speeches by heads of state focused on issues of national importance. Environmental treaties and agreements attracted few signatories at the conference.

The sole environmental issue addressed in delegate’s speeches was that of global warming, which was mostly taken up by Pacific nations. “Quite a few states referred to environmental issues but little made any firm commitments; most countries concentrated on issues that were most immediately important to their nation,” UN spokesperson, James Sniffen, told edie. “As expected smaller island nations who are worried about the effects of greenhouse gases eloquently expressed the importance of the Kyoto Protocol to them.”

“My country strongly believes every country must unequivocally demonstrate rigorous political commitment to address one alarming environmental phenomenon – climate change”, said Hersey Kyota, the delegate of Pacific archipelago, Palau. “The Republic of Palau, in recent years, has witnessed a devastating portent of this global phenomenon. A particular sense of urgency in our differentiated responsibilities lies in implementation of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol”, he said.

The United Nation’s newest member, tiny Tuvalu, said that it supported “the full development and adoption of the environmental vulnerability index (EVI), which would better reflect the capacity limitations of small island developing States,” and spoke of its “great concern” on “the consequences of global warming and climate change.”

“For many, our very existence as nations is under threat unless the rising sea level is dealt with at once”, warned Mekere Moruata, Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea. “Not all governments have accepted the Kyoto Protocol’s emission targets, and not all will meet the agreed targets. The United Nations has to orchestrate further efforts with greater urgency and seriousness.”

New Zealand’s prime minister, Helen Clark, was the most high profile world leader to note the importance of bringing the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change into force.

Icelandic Prime Minister, David Oddsson, was the only other leader to place special emphasis on environmental issues, suggesting that implementation of the Kyoto Protocol should be arranged “so as to encourage as far as possible the location of power- intensive industries in places where clean, renewable energy resources are found, so that total emissions can be kept to a minimum”.

Environmental legislation fared poorly with only Mexico committing to the Kyoto Protocol, and Morocco, Lesotho, Kiribati and Guinea, agreeing to debate the issue in parliament.

During the convention Belize, Estonia, Croatia and the Republic of Korea signed in principle to the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity, obliging countries to protect plant and animal species through habitat preservation and other means. The legislation has already been ratified by 174 nations.

Speaking before the start of the Millennium Summit, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Klaus Toepfer described it “an opportunity that must be grasped” in tackling the root causes of global environmental degradation. Toepfer’s call to translate the commitments of the Malmo Declaration, when the world’s Environment Ministers committed themselves to a new vision for sustainable development a little over three months ago, “concrete actions, individually, collectively and multilaterally” may have been bypassed.

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