March 2006 marked the last month in office of UNEP's Executive Director, Klaus Toepfer. Mr Toepfer, who has headed the organization for eight years since February 1998, has presided over a period in UNEP's history that has seen environmental sustainability become front page news and central to international development goals.
Mr. Toepfer is known internationally for his commitment to sustainable development, and for fighting for the cause of the developing world. Among the milestones of his tenure are a number of important environmental agreements, including the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which addresses issue of genetically modified organisms, and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Mr. Toepfer was also closely involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations in support of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, which entered into force in February 2005 after Russia's ratification papers were handed to the UN Secretary-General at UNEP headquarters in November 2004.
Mr Toepfer's term also saw the establishment of the annual Global Ministerial Environment Forum, which is tasked by the UN General Assembly to review important and emerging environmental issues, as well as an expanded role for UNEP at the national level with the adoption of the Bali Strategic Plan for Technology Support and Capacity Building in 2005.
Perhaps the highlight of Mr. Toepfer's time at UNEP was the increased importance given to environmental considerations by the international community. Environmental sustainability is an explicit objective of Millennium Development Goal 7, and a thread that runs through all the rest. The importance of environment for development, and the role of UNEP, was reaffirmed at the 2005 World Summit. As Mr. Toepfer noted at the time, the environment "is not a luxury good, only affordable when all other problems have been solved. It is the oxygen that breathes life into all our aspirations for a healthier, fairer and more stable world."
Mr. Toepfer's successor as UNEP Executive Director is Mr. Achim Steiner, currently Director General of the World Conservation Union (IUCN). He will start his term of office as UNEP's fifth Executive Director on 15 June 2006. In the intervening period, UNEP's Deputy Executive Director, Mr. Shafqat Kakakhel, will serve as acting Executive Director