UN Environment chief: We shouldn’t wait for the oceans to turn into a plastic swamp

Erik Solheim [UNEP]

At the latest United Nations environment summit, pollution topped the agenda. The man leading the UN’s quest to clean up the planet hopes this meeting will act as the wake-up call countries need and that the fight will include the world of business.

Erik Solheim is the head of the United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP).

He spoke to EURACTIV environment reporter Sam Morgan after UNEP’s 3rd assembly wrapped up in Nairobi, Kenya.

This edition of the environment assembly was meant, in your own words, to put the issue of pollution higher on the political agenda. Do you think it has succeeded in achieving that?

The Environment Assembly has been a turning point, but the proof will of course be dependent on what concrete action is taken as a result. What we tried to do was very ambitious – that is to put nearly all forms of pollution issues on the table in a single summit. It’s now up to the 193 member states to take the content of the adopted resolutions back to their capitals and transform them into policy action.

A good example is on the issue of marine pollution, in particular on plastics. No country in the world has a policy to throw plastic waste into the oceans, but this is happening on an enormous scale. This is really because the issue has never been really thought about seriously, but we’ve been able to present the data and the science, and I sincerely hope member states will now be spurred into action and correct the policy gap.

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Have we reached a tipping point of sorts then, particularly in the Western world, where pollution is no longer an acceptable facet of everyday life for the public?

Certainly, yes. Pollution is a clear consequence of unbridled development, and I’m convinced that people in the Western world now expect more than just material wealth. They also demand a clean environment. Pollution is no longer an acceptable trade-off for material wealth.

You said at the beginning of the assembly that we should have a discussion about legal bans on things like plastics but that you’re also hopeful we will not need them. Could you explain what you mean by that?

Let me be clear on one thing: plastics are not the problem, it’s what we do with them. Plastics and polymers are also crucial building blocks of a green economy – for example in solar panels, wind turbines or lighter-weight chassis materials that increase the energy efficiency of many types of vehicles. Even at the most basic level, things like plastic containers in the kitchen can cut down food waste.

The big need here is for behavioural change on a massive scale, as well as better waste management. Behavioural change not only applies to consumers, but also to manufacturers and retailers. They need to take responsibility not only for their products, but for the packaging too. If that change can happen quickly through incentives and awareness, that’s a good thing. In some cases, however, legislation may well be necessary, but there is no one-size-fits-all policy.

It’s 30 years since the Montreal Protocol and the Minamata Convention came into force this year. Both were the result of large wake-up calls that pushed countries to support international agreements. Do you think other environmental issues, like marine litter or lead poisoning, need a watershed moment in order for nations to once again wake up and do something?

Absolutely, and we’re trying our best to sound the alarm. Just like the ozone layer, we cannot afford to wait until our oceans are transformed into a plastic swamp. I think we’ve reached a turning point on some of these issues, because a few years ago few people were even aware of them as a major concern. Both the Montreal Protocol and the Minamata Convention are proof that global action is possible.

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The assembly was able to adopt a few draft resolutions, among which was one tabled by your home nation of Norway on marine litter and plastic pollution. People were left disappointed that it wasn’t legally binding and that it involves business too much. Was this the best that could be expected at this stage?

By nature, all resolutions at the UN Environment Assembly are non-binding. However, I don’t necessarily see that as a major problem, even if, in an ideal world, we’d have binding commitments that each member state would readily sign up to. What we have instead are aspirational targets and a call to action. Again, it’s up to each member state to take these back to their capitals and transform them into action.

I strongly believe the United Nations has to involve business and the private sector, and it was encouraging to see so many companies who want to do the right thing and want a seat at the table. We simply cannot afford to shut these firms out of the process, and it’s also important for them to see the huge opportunities to be had from a shift to a more sustainable business model.

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Leaders from around the world were in Nairobi last week. Do you think more could be achieved if the UN worked more with blocs, like the EU or African Union, rather than on an individual country basis?

We do try to work closely with blocs like the EU, African Union or the Small Island Developing States, and when putting resolutions together we do our best to forge common positions – and much of the negotiations that led up to the Environment Assembly were led by particular blocs, some of them formal and some informal. The end result is the same: we need to build consensus and be flexible in how we do this.

When you welcome people again in two years time, are there are specific steps you would like to have seen taken in the meantime? A ban on plastic straws perhaps?

Things like a ban on straws would be a strong symbolic measure, but the same could be said of micro-plastics use in cosmetics, plastic cutlery or polystyrene used in packaging. The best result of course is that the numbers change significantly. For example we throwing nearly a million tonnes of plastics into the oceans each month. We need to get that to zero.

Climate change action was not so long ago seen as a overly liberal or niche pursuit but it has now gone mainstream in a way. Do you think environmental action, more broadly speaking, has also achieved the same feat or do you think too many people still do not appreciate the issues we are facing?

Attitudes are changing, and we have the civil society sector and the media to thank for that. For example, the BBC’s Blue Planet II series has really hit home the dangers our oceans are facing. Sky News has been campaigning on plastic waste, and even the Daily Mail featured the problem on its front page recently. There is also some extremely good environmental reporting being done, and I get the sense that the science & environment beat is no longer a niche pursuit in many newsrooms.

We still have a long way to go, however. People must be able to see the connections between pollution and their own health, and the health of their children. So it’s a human rights issue too. The private sector needs to see the scope for innovation and opportunities, and that will move the market. Governments must feel emboldened to capitalise on that and take firm action. For too long the environment has been presented as a problem, whereas it really is just a huge opportunity. If you look at every single environmental issue, there are none that we cannot innovate our way out of!

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