BY NICK NUTTALL, SPOKESPERSON AND HEAD OF COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH, UN FRAMEWORK CONVENTION ON CLIMATE CHANGE (UNFCCC) AND CURRENT CHAIR OF BONN’S UN COMMUNICATIONS GROUP
Over the past six or so months, something quite remarkable has occurred—the world has fulfilled one impossible dream and delivered a suite of dynamic, forward-looking goals that may speak to the reality of every man, woman and child.
Namely, how will over seven billion people, rising to over 10 billion in just over four decades time, survive, let alone thrive, on planet Earth without further damaging and degrading the very life support systems that make life possible in the first place.
The impossible dream was the achievement of a truly global climate agreement in Paris in December 2015, under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
The agreement set a clear course for every nation on how to reduce the threat from rising greenhouse gas emissions in our shared atmosphere, while realizing the multiple opportunities from a decarbonized global economy.
This paradigm shift on climate action is also part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), agreed in New York last year.
The SDGs provide a vision of a world free from poverty but also one with better and healthier cities, communities, and industrial production processes; where species on land and in the sea are properly conserved and where access to affordable, modern electricity systems is no longer a pipedream for over a billion people.
The climate agreement and the SDGs share many things in common, not least, the fact that they are about all nations taking responsibility and doing what they can.
Indeed, at their heart is an understanding that every nation and every person has a role to play in realizing their success, rich and poor countries, middle ranking, and rapidly developing alike.
UN Bonn is in many ways at the centre of this fundamental shift in the way nations but also companies, cities and citizens will manage and shape the present and the future.
Many of the UN agencies and entities based here– and indeed many of the flourishing numbers of institutes and Non-Governmental Organizations who have set up home in Bonn– are part of the sustainability jigsaw puzzle.
The establishment of UN Bonn and the history of its own evolution, in many ways speaks to a global history of a world coming to grips with global environmental, social and economic change as a result of the different perspectives prevalent at the time.
While 2016 marks the 20th anniversary celebrations, the UN presence in the city pre-dates 1996. The 1970s witnessed the birth of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) following the landmark Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment.
Among early pre-occupations, perhaps reflecting the interests of the developed world’s environmental movement at the time, was the conservation of threatened species.
UNEP’s Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species and Wild Animals (CMS), also known as the Bonn Convention, was signed in 1979 and was in some ways, a logical extension of the other big species agreement—the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) whose home is in Geneva, Switzerland.
Other, species-related treaties, which have increasingly linked wildlife and human development, have also set up home in Bonn since 1979, in many ways dealing with specific challenges in specific geographical locations—bats in Europe (EUROBATS); porpoises, dolphins and some whale species in northerly latitudes (ASCOBANS) and birds that migrate between the Eurasian and African continents (AEWA).
The 1980s and 1990s saw rising concern over hazardous wastes and trans-boundary chemical pollutants including in respect to human health. This gave birth to international agreements such as the Montreal Protocol to prevent atmospheric ozone depletion, later, the Basel and Rotterdam treaties, and in the early 2000s, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants.
Bonn’s role was to become host to another big pollution treaty, which also mirrored growing understanding of the links between industrialization; trade; differentiated responsibilities between developed and developing countries and environmental impacts—namely the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
It was a key outcome of the famous Rio Earth Summit of 1992, along with another UN Bonn resident, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.
The UN Volunteers also made history by becoming a further Bonn headquartered agency in the 1990s at a time when in many ways it was evolving from a volunteer placement agency to one moving far more into the field of development cooperation.
The arrival of UNV and UNFCCC was a key moment in the life of Bonn in many ways kick starting its transition from former capital of Western Germany whose buildings served parliament and Federal ministries into its new and evolving future as a UN city.
The ethos and availability of infrastructure has also served as a magnet for a rising numbers of sustainability- focused civil society organizations and research institutes that today cover everything from fair trade and certified wood and paper products to environmental law and renewable energies.
During the 2000s, Bonn increasingly expressed the way in which the international community was moving from stand-alone treaties, aimed at dealing with a specific challenge like a suite of species, to joining the dots in terms of the emerging sustainability challenges affecting developing, as well as developed countries.
That expression is glimpsed through, for example, the establishment of entities in this period such as the UN University’s Institute for Environment and Human Security; UN International Strategy for Disaster Risk Reduction – Platform for Early Warning, and the UN Platform for Space-based Information for Disaster Management and Emergency Response, to name just a few.
Increasing understanding of the links between human health and the environment, as a well as the crucial role of education and training in terms of realizing a more sustainable world, also became part of Bonn’s contribution with specific units of the World Health Organization and the UN Educational, Science and Cultural Organization basing themselves here.
Greater international understanding of the true economic value and wealth of the world’s natural or nature-based assets, such as forests and coral reefs or pollinating insects, such as bees, has also been a key theme in the last decade.
Bonn now also hosts The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) that is part of this trend and urgent realization.
An office of the UN World Tourism Organization in Bonn, originally set up to assist tsunami-affected countries, has mirrored this link with its expanded work on biodiversity and its role in tourism—the world’s biggest ‘industry’.
The recent arrival of the UN System Staff College, whose mission is to equip UN staff for the new challenges they face, will help ensure that the international focus of Bonn also has staff with the best forwarding looking skills including in respect to the SDGs.
In many ways, the world has turned full circle in this 20th anniversary year. Bonn’s first UN agency was actually an office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
It arrived in 1951 to assist with the hundreds of thousands of ‘displaced people’ in then West Germany, as a result of World War II.
Today Germany and Europe are witnessing the challenge of migration and movement of people from the Middle East and elsewhere, sparked in some cases by war but where environmental decline, including loss of natural resources and climate change, are almost certainly taking their toll.
The future could witness even more stresses and strains unless all nations and communities become smarter about managing our shared environment and building better and healthier opportunities for seven billion people, rising to over 10 billion by 2050.
‘Shaping a Sustainable Future’ is not just a cute new slogan for UN Bonn—it is about the very fundamentals underpinning the quality of life in the 21st century and beyond.
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