Klaus Töpfer (29 July 1938 – 8 June 2024)

By Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F082403-0007 /
Schaack, Lothar /
CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

 We have lost a giant in the environment and sustainable development field with Klaus Toepfer (Klaus Töpfer (29 July 1938 – 8 June 2024). 
I had the pleasure of working with him first as the Chair of the UN Commission on Sustainable Development (UN CSD). He was its second chair in 1994, the first substantive session of the newly created Commission. One of the successes of the Earth Summit in 1992 had been the creation of a new functioning Commission of the UN Economic and Social Council and in its first ten years was a very effective body. This is in part because of chairs such as Klaus Toepfer.
I was at that point a year in from creating Stakeholder Forum for a Sustainable Future (it was called then UNED-UK – the national committee in the UK for UNEP and UNDP). 
Klaus was also the German Federal Minister for Regional Planning, Civil Engineering and Urban Development and our annual conference had a focus on the upcoming Habitat II conference in Istanbul (1996) and he came to speak on the upcoming CSD which would also address the Human Settlement chapter of Agenda 21.

The second UN CSD under his leadership laid down the most progressive engagement processes for stakeholders at a UN meeting. He built on the work of Maurice Strong from 1992 and the Malaysian Ambassador to the UN Razali bin Ismail who had chaired the first session of the UN CSD.

In 1997 he worked behind the scenes in helping to secure the Kyoto Protocol on climate change.

He would play a significant role in Habitat II and, with Shafqat Kakakhel who was the chair of the negotiations at Habitat again expand the engagement of stakeholders this time in a UN Conference.  
In 1998 the Secretary General appointed him the fourth Executive Director of UNEP and Shafqat his deputy.

As UNEP’s UK national committee, we had the pleasure of working him and his team through the time he was head of UNEP including an MOU to deliver at the World Summit on Sustainable Development an implementation summit. It launched 23 multistakeholder partnerships. 

In the aftermath of Habitat II, he acted as the acting head of both UNEP and UN Habitat as it is now known.  

In 1998 he was asked to chair the UN Task Force on Environment and Human Settlements it produced its seminal report on Reform, "Renewing the United Nations: A Programme for Reform”. It called for and saw established the Environment Management Group which would be chaired by the Executive Director of UNEP and bring together the relevant UN Agencies, Programmes and Conventions. It also introduced that as UNEP Governing Council would meet only every two years that in the other year there would be a global environment ministers meeting which would rotate around the different UN regions. This is something that UNEA should revisit as an idea. Not surprisingly it recognised the role of stakeholders in delivering Agenda 21 and other agreements. UNEP over the coming years took the same approach as the UN Commission on Sustainable Development and worked with the nine Major Groups as its core engagement with stakeholders.

Under his leadership at UNEP, he oversaw the successful negotiations for the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. The 1998 report had suggested the clustering of UN environmental conventions worrying that there were developing gaps between conventions and a worry that the approach of one might undermine another. It was under his successor Achim Steiner that we saw the chemicals conventions clustered into a super chemical COP.

In 2009 after  leaving the UN Töpfer was founding director of the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (IASS) this focused research between climate problems and sustainable economics.  In 2016, the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) appointed Töpfer as co-chairman (alongside Juan Somavia) of an Independent Team of Advisors on positioning the UN development system for the Sustainable Development Goals. 

In the 1994 Stakeholder Forum conference we had the pleasure of both Topfer and Juan Somavia speaking as Somavia was to chair the Social Summit. 

Thank you, Klaus, for all the amazing work and dedication you have given to addressing the critical environment and sustainable development agenda through your life.  We will miss you.


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