UNEP director: Crises will drive collaboration at COP21

In Thailand, people compete with excavators to find waste that they can sell. [Thibaud Saintin/Flickr]

The pressures of international catastrophes, such as the economic and refugee crisis, will drive closer collaboration between countries to fight climate change and create a new circular economy, Surendra Shresta said in an interview with EURACTIV.

Surendra Shresta is director of the United Nations Environment Programme’s International Environmental Technology Centre. He spoke to deputy news editor James Crisp after the publication of the first ever Global Waste Management Outlook report.

Shresta spoke with EURACTIV’s Deputy News Editor, James Crisp.

Where does Europe stand globally in terms of waste management?

On a global scale, Europe is very advanced. Globally, developing countries are the worst. If we go back to the 1980s and compare it to now, there’s a vast difference. But we are trying to move forward to a future where there is no waste. Then, waste will become a resource.

The circular economy is an excellent idea. Mimicking nature is always a great idea. There’s no waste in nature.

After raising more public awareness, we need policy frameworks. Why would an individual or company invest if the risk is too high? The legislative framework will be paramount, for global investment.

Given Europe’s leading status in this field, were you surprised that the European Commission withdrew the Circular Economy package?

It was very surprising, but I understand that it’ll be more ambitious. The circular economy concept, which goes beyond recycle-reuse, gets into the product design and longevity. It’s important to focus on the design and production phase, not just whether it can be recycled.

Europe cannot do this alone. That’s where international bodies have to come in, to influence globally manufactured products. A global platform is necessary. Goods produced in China need to abide by this too, for example.

But there are higher environmental standards in Europe. Could that harm Europe’s global competitiveness in the new circular economy?

The circular economy is beyond waste and recycling. Goods need to be designed in a way that the parts can be dissembled and recycled. In Europe, you have these environmental standards. If developing countries or China want to trade, then they need to respect these standards. Environmental standards aren’t the issue.

In this globalised world, Europe cannot go it alone. We need to take our experience externally. Finding solutions for China and India through this knowledge is crucial.

It took 30 years for Antwerp to get from 0% recycling to 72%. Now we need emerging economies to do it in five years. With population pressure, urbanisation, the new middle-class, less money, we cannot afford to do it in 30. It means closer collaboration and partnership. The globalised world coming closer, rather than further apart, in terms of policies and standards. If humanity is going to survive, we need to move in that direction.

I am an optimist. In 2000, there was a collective agreement by developed nations to help the developing nations on a common agenda. Prior to this, it was an open playing field. With the Sustainable Development Goals, it’s universal, and there’s a common direction. In terms of overall direction, there’s more and more agreement.

Do you think that will help bring a positive outcome at the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris?

I think there will be an agreement, not to the extent that people want or expect perhaps. The USA and China have already agreed, and as they are the largest emitters, I am optimistic.

Our political leadership is beginning to realise that we have to work together. How to implement it is a source of contention, but the direction isn’t.

Looking back, every time we’ve had a crisis, transformative changes have taken place. With the current issues, have we reached a crisis point? That’s the question.

Have we reached a crisis point?

If we have, then the politicians and leadership have no choice (but) to take action. They have all talked about international crises. And why did the US and China announce what they did?

So we have reached a crisis point!

That is driving towards more international collaboration. In the future, if the big powers cannot come together, what’s the alternative? If the current refugee crisis is magnified ten times, plus another economic crisis, where will people go? Can we put a fence around it? No.

And where does waste management fit into this?

Due to population pressure and resource depletion, waste is becoming more and more important. In any developing country, you see millions employed in this sector. They are dependent on it. Helping these countries organise, segregating waste at source, will enhance the lives of the workers as well, by improving working conditions and hygiene standards. The knock on effect for climate change is low-hanging fruit. 15-20% of emissions in fact, and there’s economic and health benefits too.

Developed countries in Europe, especially, need to support the emerging countries with proactive policies. The rest will take care of itself. Both will grow, both will have jobs. The expertise, the knowledge of those 300 years. Let’s pack it up and give it to them.

We have the technology. We could innovate further, but the basic technologies exist. If we can facilitate this, it can’t be free, of course. There has to be similar legal frameworks in the developing countries. We need to develop these standards and norms through international bodies such as the UN, for example.

So can technology and innovation replace finance in the Paris negotiations?

In the current discussions in New York, there is increasingly more interest in this from the developing countries. In 1992, there was more interest in finance.

In the last five to six years, Overseas Development Aid has hovered around the same level. Illicit financial flows are worth six times more than the ODA. Foreign Direct Investments are contributing seven times more.

Now national governments realise it’s necessary to prioritise making it easier to get foreign investment this in the national budget. There’s no need to go cap in hand to other countries.

Look at China, look at India, what they’re doing. They’re not waiting for the $100 billion that has been pledged. Unlike five to ten years ago, the developing countries aren’t insisting on much, because that’s the reality. The reserve cash is with the emerging economies.

Money is less and less talked about. Expertise, technology, trade, access to markets, these are the priorities now. The international discussion is moving onwards.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe