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UNIS/INF/417
7 June 2011

Environment Day Talks 2011 at the United Nations Headquarters in Vienna:

Chemical Industry and Environmental Protection - an Inherent Contradiction?

VIENNA, 7 June (UN Information Service) - On the occasion of World Environment Day, which is celebrated annually on 5 June, and the International Year of Chemistry, proclaimed by the United Nations for the year 2011, international experts met today at a conference entitled "Environment Day Talks '11: Chemistry takes Responsibility" at the Vienna International Centre (VIC). The symposium was organized by the Austrian NGO Eco Counselling Austria in cooperation with the United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Office Vienna and the United Nations Information Service (UNIS) Vienna, supported by the Austrian Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, Environment and Water Management.

Over 200 participants from the public and private sector, governmental and non-governmental organizations, science and politics attended the conference today to exchange their views on the role and responsibility of chemistry.

In a video message, UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner highlighted the work of the United Nations system on environmental issues, including the close cooperation between UNEP and other UN entities such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), when it comes to jointly collaborating on issues such as the use of pesticides and insecticides, or on the International Conventions on Chemicals.

On the role and responsibility that chemistry has for the individual, society and economy, Steiner said: "Trying to understand how in a green economy we can enhance the value of modern technology and science through the lens of chemistry while also reducing the pollution footprint and the legacy of the use of these substances is at the heart of our work that we do in the United Nations through some of the global conventions that we have agreed."

Examples of how the international community over the years has tried to address the principle of responsibility and accountability of chemical substances and compounds are the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal, the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, and the Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent.

Harald Egerer, Head of UNEP Vienna which also serves the Interim Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention, highlighted UNEP's work in identifying and reducing transboundary environmental risks from hazardous mining operations in South Eastern Europe (SEE) in the framework of the ENVSEC Initiative. "Mining and mineral processing has played a vital role in the history and economy in the Western Balkans. Still today the region boasts some of the largest mineral deposits in Europe. In order to secure the environmental, economic and social sustainability of mining operations in SEE, the region will need to take appropriate measures," said Egerer.

Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for the Environment, addressed the conference participants in a video message, pointing to the role of the European Union being the world's second biggest producer of chemicals and its efforts to provide a framework for a sustainable chemical industry.

Chairman of Eco Counselling Austria, Christian Mokricky, outlined awareness raising campaigns undertaken by Eco Counselling Austria in view of the International Year of Chemistry.

René van Berkel, Head of the Cleaner and Sustainable Production Unit of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) referred to UNIDO's contribution in the field of green chemistry and engineering. He introduced a programme which promotes technological innovation and financial incentive systems and is being conducted in 47 countries all over the world in order to reduce polluting emissions, waste and water consumption.

To demonstrate how successfully policy tools can be implemented to promote the responsible use of chemistry Debbie Raphael, Toxics Reduction/Green Building Programme Manager of the San Francisco Department of Environment, introduced the Precautionary Principle Policy of San Francisco. "San Francisco could no longer afford to wait for Federal regulation to prevent toxic chemicals from appearing in the products used in local businesses and households and thus adopted a Precautionary Principle Policy calling on city decision makers to act on early warning signs of harm," she said. Under the umbrella of the Precautionary Principle, a wide array of policy tools has been used to identify and promote the use of safer alternatives. "Policy initiatives such as chemical bans, incentive programmes, and information campaigns demonstrate the power and effectiveness of a precautionary approach in achieving 'responsible chemistry' at the local level," she said.

Thomas Jakl, Chair of the Management Board on the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), pointed to the European Community Regulation on chemicals and their safe use - REACH - which deals with registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemical substances and entered into force on 1 June 2007. The REACH Regulation places greater responsibility on industry to manage the risks from chemicals and to provide safety information on the substances. Manufacturers and importers are required to gather information on the properties of their chemical substances, which will allow their safe handling, and to register the information in a central database run by ECHA. The Regulation also calls for the progressive substitution of the most dangerous chemicals when suitable alternatives have been identified.

A new paradigm for industrial production is also reflected in the Cradle to Cradle® design concept, which Albin Kälin, CEO of the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) Switzerland GmbH introduced. The choice and usage of specific materials and processes enables production processes that do not produce waste but keep resources in endless cycles. "Production processes are designed according to the model of nature. No waste, no surrender, no restrictions. The right material, at the right place, at the right time, in endless cycles is the key," Kälin explained.

Inspired by the speeches given in the morning, participants explored the issue of a responsible chemical industry at three parallel panel discussion forums on "Ecology and Chemical Industry - a Contradiction?", "Ecolabels - Trend-Setter for Chemical Production?", and "Sustainable Chemical Products - Cash-Cow or Flop?" in the afternoon session of the conference. Best practice examples were presented by Johann Zimmermann of Natural Polymers (NaKu) and Andrea Promberger of Lenzing AG demonstrating the economic potential of sustainable and resource efficient products.

The results of the separate debates were shared in a closing panel discussion, taking the idea forward that in providing sustainable sources of clean water, food and energy and in maintaining a wholesome environment for the wellbeing of all people, the chemical industry's creative and innovative approach of contributing to a transparent and green economy will be inevitable when addressing global environmental challenges.

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For further information, please contact:

Maria Naderhirn
NGO/CSO Liaison, UNIS Vienna
Telephone: (+43-1) 26060-3324
Email: maria.naderhirn[at]unvienna.org

Veronika Hopfgartner
UNEP Vienna - Interim Secretariat of the Carpathian Convention
Telephone: (+43-1) 26060-5620
Email: veronika.hopfgartner[at]unvienna.org

Gabriele Pomper
"die umweltberatung" Österreich (Eco Counselling Austria)
Mobile: (+43-676) 836 88 565
Email: gabriele.pomper[at]umweltberatung.at
Website: www.umweltberatung.at

For further information on the conference, please visit http://en.umwelttag.at/

International Year of Chemistry: http://www.chemistry2011.org/

World Environment Day 2011: http://www.unep.org/wed/