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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

UNEP Initiatives

Air Date: Week of

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The United Nations Environment Programme recently launched two heavy metal pollution initiatives. Host Steve Curwood talks with UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer about the plans to phase out leaded gasoline in Africa and decrease mercury worldwide.


CURWOOD: Talk, talk, talk. After the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg last summer, many participants complained that these grand summits tend to produce more rhetoric than action. So the UN decided to take a break from big environmental conferences and concentrate on fulfilling promises already made. And that was the goal when the governing council of the UN Environment Programme recently convened in Nairobi. As a result, UNEP is going forward with efforts that range from rescuing the ecosystems of the occupied Palestinian territories to enhancing the popularity of green lifestyles in mass culture. And in some of the first concrete developments to come out of Johannesburg, the UN has also launched two programs to reduce heavy metal pollution worldwide. Joining me is Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme. Leaded gasoline is already banned in most industrial societies, but it's still common in Africa. And as I understand it, Dr. Toepfer, you have a voluntary scheme to phase out leaded gas there. What are the challenges?

   Klaus Toepfer, UNEP’s Executive Director

TOEPFER: Very old cars. You see, the African countries are recycling places for the used cars of the developed countries. And then they have old motors, and then people are a little bit afraid if you have unleaded gasoline -- is that not bad for the motor? You have to convince people that this is not the case. Then you have to go, of course, to the industry and say, how can you make this happen? And I'm very happy to inform you that in Africa, for example, there is no price difference between unleaded and leaded gasoline. So it is also stimulated by technology, by the industry.

CURWOOD: Now tell me, why is it important to get rid of lead in gasoline?

TOEPFER: See, one of the most poisoning stuff, especially for children living in big cities, is leaded gasoline. Children are breathing more, and they are breathing deeper. And they have all those poisoning lead integrated with a lot of consequences for their mental development, a lot of problems also with other diseases. And of course there is also quite a negative influence on the environment altogether. So it is more than only a marginal topic. It is a very, very clear focus to decrease the burden of pollution to human beings. By the way, you know, at our Governing Council, we also concentrated to a second of those heavy metals, that is mercury. These are, as Kofi Annan once mentioned, travelers without passports. They are going really around the world. If you see the emissions from coal power stations -- coal has some content of mercury, and if you burn the coal, the mercury is going. It is going really around the world, so we need common action, and therefore United Nations is necessary to stimulate this.

CURWOOD: Methyl mercury comes from burning coal, some other activities as well, gets in the air, gets into oceans, gets into the food chain. How was it that the United Nations Environment Programme was able to get the goal of reducing mercury pollution worldwide? How were you able to get that implemented? And how is it being implemented?

TOEPFER: A very, very important step again was to make the science right. So we were asked, almost two years before, that we have to do a global mercury assessment. So we want to learn where is mercury coming from, where are the hot spots, what are the knowledge with regard to the repercussions of mercury to human health and to the environment. All this was necessary to bring together, so we integrated scientists, we integrated governments, so that nobody was taken by surprise.

CURWOOD: So this is a key -- nobody was taken by surprise.

TOEPFER: You see, if you go in another way, it will be very difficult to convince people to act. They must have ownership of this process as well. You must make it as transparent as even possible. There, again, are different interests, without any doubt.

CURWOOD: How do you do this? You have no treaty. You made this announcement. There's no international treaty or convention that requires this mercury program. It's just a pronouncement.

TOEPFER: First and foremost, if you would have the decision to make a legally binding program, then we wait for the next seven or eight years. So it's much better not to wait with actions until we negotiate, and implement, and ratification and, and, and. But it was very good to say, let's act, let's start, let's inform the people in the different countries where the lead is coming. If you go to Africa and the mining, lots of people are not aware of what is going on. We cannot go from zero to 100. We must go step by step and not, you see, to fight the little fly and not be aware of the big elephant on the other side.

CURWOOD: Your program, the United Nations Environment Programme, isn't handing out a lot of dough to do this. Who pays for this work?

TOEPFER: First and foremost, of course, we are always interested to make the ‘polluter pays’ principle a reality. That has a double-positive effect, because if you have this interlinkage to the polluter, you must have also the clear consequence that it is the polluter’s interest to change technology, to make the process already integrated those externalized costs until now, so that is a first.

Second, of course, is that the governments themselves must be aware that this is a good investment in human health, and so we need especially the change of technologies. Because there are better technologies. You can handle mercury, of course, in coal power stations.

And finally, also we have to work together where the resources right now are not yet available. We must make pilot project. We have to invest in this, not only for the advantage of those people there, but of all of people living around the world. This is quite a challenge. It's not a marginal topic.

CURWOOD: Klaus Toepfer is Executive Director of the UN Environment Program and Undersecretary General of the United Nations. Thank you, sir.

TOEPFER: Thank you so much as well.



Highlights from the UNEP Governing Council meeting


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