UN environment chief: ‘Without growth, there can be no end to poverty’

Erik Solheim with outgoing UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2012. [Utenriksdepartementet UD/Flickr]

The new head of the UN’s environment programme (UNEP) spoke to EURACTIV’s partner Der Tagesspiegel about capitalism and development.

Erik Solheim is Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). He previously served as Norway’s Minister of International Development from 2005 and Minister of the Environment from 2007. He held both posts until 2012.

Solheim spoke to Der Tagesspiegel’s Dagmar Dehmer.

You were a development minister and an environment minister during your time in government. As the new head of the UNEP, how can you unite these two issues?

Clearly, environment and development have to be merged and connected in order for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be fulfilled.

How is that going to work?

The most obvious issue is pollution and emissions. We have been very successful up to now in combatting communicable diseases. We stumbled in Nigeria, but have otherwise eradicated polio on the African continent. Smallpox is a thing of the past and the death rate as a result of malaria has fallen by 70% since 2000. It’s a huge success.

Environmental pollution is becoming a big hindrance to development. There are more deaths as a result of air pollution than cancer. Everyone knows about cancer, but not everyone is aware of the effects of air pollution. A second example is our oceans. The seas provide many people with a livelihood, but they are overfished and blighted by plastic waste.

And that paralyses development?

The biggest job-creation machine is tourism. Operating even a small hotel requires a big workforce. In a car production plant, a few experts can oversee the robots. But tourism is a fantastic way of providing jobs, if we do it sustainably. We need to move people around the world, on planes and cars, but produce less pollution and respect nature. There is a strong connection to nature conservation. People travel thousands of miles to see elephants and lions. If there aren’t any to see, no one is going to come. Nature conservation links environment protection and economic development in a big way. It is no coincidence that Thailand has shown enormous growth over the last decade and is also one of the most visited countries. We could see something similar in Africa.

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For that you need to keep in mind security as well as sustainability. Tourists aren’t going to be around for long if there is no security…

That is another issue that we are focusing on: the relationship between environmental destruction and war, as well as conflict and migration. Destruction of the environment can exacerbate conflict and wars can make it very difficult to resolve conservation problems. In the Middle East, for example, severe water shortages have contributed to a complex series of conflicts. Additionally, the millions of refugees from Iraq and Syria are putting neighbouring countries like Jordan and Lebanon under immense environmental pressure. There are some wars in which the environment does not play a role of course. For example, I was involved in the peace process that followed the civil war in Sri Lanka. There was no environmental factor at play there. But in Somalia, in South Sudan and the region around Lake Chad, where Boko Haram are causing big problems, there is a clear link between destruction of the environment and war.

Strangely though, the rainforests of Congo are better preserved than those in Indonesia. The latter is an increasingly economically successful country, where poverty has shrunk and healthcare, education and life expectancy have all improved. These factors have contributed to a situation in which the rainforests have been able to be exploited. The wars in Africa meant that the countries involved did not have a chance to do the same.

How do you find the right balance?

We can’t protect forests through conflict. But we can bring Brazilian rainforest experts to the Congo basin. Brazil has brought rapid economic development to the 20 million people that live in the Amazon. That’s the same amount of people that live in all the Scandinavian countries put together. If it’s possible in Brazil, it is possible anywhere. Without economic growth, poverty isn’t going to go away.

So growth is everything?

No, there is a problem with distributive justice. We have to share the wealth of the planet much better than this ridiculous situation in which a handful of the super rich have access to more resources than half the world’s population. Things have to change and it can only be resolved at the highest political level. Thankfully, a few of the super rich, like Bill Gates, have realised that there is work to be done. Capitalism can only survive in the long-term if it is fair, integrative and responsible.

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How can one make sure that money is invested in protecting the environment and no longer contributes to its destruction?

The Chinese leadership of the G20 has taken up this issue very well. Germany will take over the presidency in the coming year and has already indicated that it will continue the work that has been started. In my view, the matter is quite simple: there is an unbelievable amount of money worldwide. And there are so many good ideas and projects that are overlooked by people that could invest. Many of these projects don’t receive money because banks and insurance companies find it difficult to calculate the risks involved. That is why governments or the World Bank or other organisations have to find ways to take on a part of this risk, so private investors will take part.

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What kind of reform do you see happening to the UN?

The point of the UN is to be one of the moral leaders of the world. It is our job to find the best solutions to many of the world’s problems and come up with campaigns that will improve the world. UNEP should be more involved in campaigns that are meant to mobilise public awareness. One example is cleaning up coastlines, where you need people to get involved and role up their sleeves. But the plastics industry needs more regulation for the problem to actually be solved. It’s about combining big policies with private action.

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