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Institutions and concepts cause poverty and environmental degradation.

This simple fact needs to be foremost in the minds of delegates to the fourth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Development in Asia and the Pacific, which is being held in Kitakyushu City, from Aug. 31 to Sept. 5.

The meeting of ministers and senior officials from more than 50 countries, organized by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, will frame the debate about environment and development for the next five years, and adopt a Regional Action Program for Environmentally Sound and Sustainable Development.

The United Nations Environment Program recognized in its Global Environmental Outlook-2000 report — an authoritative assessment of the state of the world environment published last year — that “inspired political leadership and intense cooperation across all regions and sectors” will be needed to adequately respond to the scale of environmental challenges we face.

In many respects, the key to our environmental future lies with Asia and the Pacific. It is a dynamic region, rich in cultural diversity, resources, economic innovation and potential.

It is blessed with superlatives — from the world’s tallest peaks to the largest tracts of coastal mangrove forest. Ancient Asian societies gave us science, music, poetry and the foundations of mathematics. More recently, Asia offered us the Green Revolution and the quality-control revolution.

Unfortunately, the region can also claim the dirtiest rivers, the most polluted air, the worst traffic, the highest rate of natural resource degradation and the most people living in absolute poverty.

To avoid making an already critical situation intolerable, UNEP’s GEO-2000 assessment recommends that future action focus on four priority areas: filling knowledge gaps, tackling root causes, taking an integrated approach, and mobilizing the involvement of civil society.

Let’s take the issue identified as being most important among 200 leading scientists surveyed for GEO-2000 — climate change.

We know now that the rapid rise in the use of fossil fuels over the past century — mainly by industrialized nations — has pushed the climate system above its natural levels. To repeat the mistakes of the West — to continue on the path of releasing greenhouse gases — will create devastating consequences. Floods and droughts will increase, along with losses of biodiversity and arable lands, and increased health risks.

The answer lies at both the macro level — commitment to implementing international agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol — and at national and local levels, encouraging the switch to other less polluting forms of energy, more suited to the needs and resources of each country or community.

This same transformative process is needed in each sector; away from excessive chemical use, large-scale logging, dammed waterways, wasteful fishing practices, haphazard urban settlement, to scales of enterprise that meet the needs of communities and protect the environment.

Precisely because so much of the urban-industrial investment within developing Asia has yet to take place, an important opportunity exists to shape a different development future — one that is far less energy, materials and waste intensive.

GEO-2000 makes it clear that the disparity between rich and poor is a major cause of environmental degradation. I have been calling on the leaders of industrialized nations to consider the impacts of their countries’ consumptive behavior, financial flows and technology transfer on developing nations.

The vital role of government is to put in place the frameworks — economic, social, regulatory and ethical — that allow for sustainable development. The policies of trade, technology, investment and governance lie at the root of environmental well-being. Cooperation at international, regional and sub-regional levels is essential if we are to channel the process of globalization toward positive outcomes for all.

The private sector also has a critical part to play in defining and applying sustainability. New technologies and systems are needed that dramatically reduce environmental impact per unit of prosperity. I am convinced that those who lead the transformative process will enjoy the greatest business success.

The involvement of the public, nongovernmental organizations and the media will also be needed to ensure that the actions of governments and companies are made on the basis of best information and practice, for greatest public good.

The Regional Action Program identifies many of the responses that could shape environmental policy over the next five years.

My hope is that Asia and the Pacific charts new territory in developing a vision and model for sustainable development; one based on community-government partnership, one which catalyses a technological transformation unprecedented in scope and pace, and one which addresses poverty without further eroding the natural resource base of this wonderful region.

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