New man at UNEP: Steiner tackles world's top environment job

Posted: 15 June 2006

On his first day in office, the new head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) today called on all nations to put environmental and economic policies on the same team and not to leave either player on the sidelines.

"For too long economics and environment have seemed like players on rival teams. There have been a lot of nasty challenges and far too many own goals. We need to make these two sides of the development coin team players, players on the same side," said Achim Steiner, the new UNEP executive director.

"Economic issues that touch on the environment are all too often pushed out of environmental conventions. Meanwhile, environmental issues are generally left standing on the touch line, little more than spectators and rarely asked to play a real role in the great economic game," said Steiner. "Everyone, not just those in the developing but also those in the developed world, stand to lose out if this continues."

Achim Steiner, Executive Director, UNEP (Photo courtesy Earth Negotations Bulletin)
Achim Steiner, Executive Director, UNEP (Photo courtesy Earth Negotations Bulletin)
Achim Steiner was elected by the United Nations General Assembly on March 16, 2006 to the position of UNEP executive director for a four year term of office that begins today.(Photo courtesy Earth Negotations Bulletin)
Steiner comes to the world's top environment desk from five years at the helm of of IUCN-the World Conservation Union, the largest environmental network in the world. Its more than 1,000 members include nations, government agencies, and nongovernmental organizations in 140 countries.

Natural services provided by the land, the air, the biodiversity and the world's waters have been frequently treated as free and limitless," he said, rather than being valued as natural wealth.

'A new mood'

Steiner believes that if environmental wealth is integrated into national economic policies, "we then have a chance to achieve the fundamental shift of values and reach a new understanding of what really makes the world go round."

He senses "a new mood" in the world, a new willingness to recognize that, "while money may make the world go round, what makes money go round is ultimately the trillions of dollars generated by the planet's goods and services from the air cleaning and climate change countering processes of forests to the fisheries and the coast line protection power of coral reefs."

Steiner said the "enormous wealth of nature's services" is demonstrated by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reports, which were supported by UNEP, and other reports this year, but he says, "they also underline that far too many are becoming limited as a result of abuse, poor management and over-exploitation."

Steiner said one of his main challenges in his first term as UNEP Executive Director was to end this "antagonism between economic and environmental policy."

While at UNEP, Steiner will focus on how markets and economic incentives and international treaties and agreements can be made to work in a way which is "pro environment, pro poor and thus pro sustainable development."

Steiner, the organization's fifth executive director since the agency was established in 1972, said there is every reason to be positive. "There is a real tide of opinion that is now running in the direction of environmentally sustainable economies upon which we must and should sail."

New partnerships

A German national, Steiner was born in Brazil in 1961, where he lived for 10 years. His educational background includes a BA from the University of Oxford as well as an MA from the University of London with specialization in development economics, regional planning, and international development and environment policy. He also studied at the German Development Institute in Berlin as well as the Harvard Business School.

His professional career has included assignments with governmental, nongovernmental and international organizations in different parts of the world.

In Washington, where he was senior policy advisor of IUCN's Global Policy Unit, he led the development of new partnerships between the environment community, the World Bank and the United Nations system.

In Southeast Asia he worked as chief technical advisor on a program for the sustainable management of Mekong River watersheds and community-based natural resources management.

In 1998 he was appointed secretary-general of the World Commission on Dams, based in South Africa, where he managed a global program of work to bring together the public sector, civil society and the private sector in a global policy process on dams and development.

Achim Steiner and Klaus Toepfer, current and former UNEP leaders (Photo courtesy World Commission on Dams)
Achim Steiner and Klaus Toepfer, current and former UNEP leaders (Photo courtesy World Commission on Dams)
Achim Steiner and Klaus Toepfer, current and former UNEP leaders, at the delivery of the World Commission on Dams final report to the United Nations. At the time Steiner was the Commission's Secretary-General and Toepfer was head of UNEP. November 17, 2000.(Photo courtesy World Commission on Dams)
He has served on a number of international advisory boards, most recently the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development and the Environmental Advisory Council of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Steiner was elected by the United Nations General Assembly on March 16, 2006 to the position of UNEP executive director for a four year term of office. He succeeds Klaus Toepfer of Germany who stepped down on March 31, 2006 after just over two terms and eight years.

'Golden' chances

In his new position, Steiner says he aims to build stronger and more streamlined ties with other UN organizations, civil society and the private sector.

"The challenges are so immense that, only by working together in mutual self interest, can we realize internationally agreed goals and deliver a stable, just and healthy planet for this and future generations," he said.

Within the UN organisation Steiner sees two "golden" chances for reform.

The UN Secretary-General's High-level Panel on UN System-wide Coherence in the Areas of Development, Humanitarian Assistance and the Environment is one of those chances, he said.

The other is the UN General Assembly's informal consultations on the institutional framework for the UN system's environmental activities, chaired by ambassadors from Mexico and Switzerland.

Steiner said he is delighted to be taking the helm of an organisation with headquarters in Africa. "My self and my family are no strangers to this wonderful continent with its diverse history and culture and hospitable people and beautiful landscapes. So I am delighted to be returning to live here. I believe that Nairobi in East Africa is an excellent location for a global environment agency."

"I am fully committed to ensuring that UNEP's headquarters becomes ever more a world-class facility on a par with cities like New York or Geneva," he said. "Africa and the developing world deserve nothing less."

Stein pledged to ensure that "UNEP becomes an ever brighter beacon of intellectual leadership, scientific assessment and a energetic catalyst for the deep and meaningful policy reforms and revolutions so urgently needed worldwide." Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2006. All Rights Reserved.