We need to engage business ‘like never before’, says new UNEP head

From negotiating peace in Sri Lanka to fighting deforestation, Erik Solheim has dealt with big issues in his decades-long career. But as the new head of the UNEP, he might face his biggest task yet: bridging the natural and business worlds.

Erik Solheim, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme.
Erik Solheim, executive director, United Nations Environment Programme. Image: UN

Erik Solheim, the man in the hot seat at the United Nations Environment Programme, is Norway’s former environment minister, a peace negotiator that brought an end to civil war in Sri Lanka and the chair of OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC).

But in his latest role as executive director of the UN agency, he faces his biggest challenge yet - protecting the earth’s fragile natural ecosystems while persuading the corporate world that sustainability makes business sense.

Solheim, who took over the post from Achim Steiner eight months ago, says he is not interested in the post-US election doom-mongering that suggests his job will prove prohibitively difficult in the months ahead.

“I don’t think the United States wants to become a nuisance,” declares the former politician, who spent his earlier career as a politician for Norway’s Socialist Left Party, when asked if he thinks a Trump-era America will roll back renewables and breathe new life into the fossil fuels industry.

Speaking to Eco-Business on the sidelines of the Responsible Business Forum held in Singapore recently, Solheim says that where America might fail to lead on climate action in the months ahead, others such as China, the private sector and individual American states such as California, New York and even Texas may take up the slack.

“I’m quite confident that we’ll move rapidly ahead on climate whatever happens in the US,” says Solheim.

When asked what his main priorities are for the year ahead, he said pollution and deforestation, citing the millions suffering from breathing bad air in China and elsewhere, and the plight of orangutans.

But working closer with business is also central to Solheim’s mandate, and a reason for his appointment.

His last job, for DAC - a unit of the OECD, a club of the world’s richest nations - was to manage aid for developing countries. There, he led efforts to push the role of the private sector and tax legislation in developing sustainable finance schemes.

Solheim’s four years at OECD came after much of his career spent in government in Norway, where from 2007 to 2012 he was the minister of the environment and international development.

During his term in office, two achievements stand out. Norwegian overseas aid reached one percent of GDP, the highest in the world, and the country enacted the Norwegian Climate and Forest Initiative, a joint treaty with Brazil, Indonesia and Guyana, to conserve rainforests.

This piece of legislation came in step with the United Nations Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (UN REDD), a global initiative to cut emissions from deforestation in developing countries by paying countries to protect them.

Solheim also played a key role as a facililtor for the peace process in Sri Lanka, and he was part of the Norwegian delegation that attempted to resolve the conflict between the government and separatists in 2002.

In this interview, Solheim talks about how Asian businesses are adapting to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, what we should read into the post-Paris COP22 meeting in Marrakesh, and what Donald Trump means for the sustainability sector.

The world is at different stages in meeting the UN’s Sustainability Development Goals. What are your thoughts on where Asian countries are in terms of the awareness and adoption of the SDGs?

I think there has been very rapid progress, and I can give you a number of examples. Of course, there is Singapore. At a very early stage, Singapore started regulating traffic, waste management and much else. It is now one of the cleanest cities on the planet, and in many ways, one of the most environment-friendly urban environments.

China is now moving quickly on nearly every environmental issue. It put the environment front and centre of their recent G20 presidency. They now make up half the world’s clean energy market and are driving down the price on solar. They have five times more high-speed rail than any other nation in the world. And their environment minister has now been given vast powers to curb pollution.

Also, Indonesia has made the protection of their rainforests a key issue. There is a strong commitment from government and business for this to happen. That will also be very beneficial for Singapore, of course, to fight the haze, which is caused by the burning rainforest land. It will take some time to get everyone aligned in the right direction, but I’m confident that we’ll get there.

In your speech at the Responsible Business Forum, you said that the UN has to engage business like never before. How do you expect businesses to be engage on sustainable development in such a harsh economic environment?

I would like to focus on certain issues specific to industry sectors. One is shipping and fishing, and the need to work with industry to clean up the oceans, get rid of the enormous volumes of marine litter that are destroying life, and make fisheries sustainable.

We also need to work with the tourist industry to protect wildlife. If there is very limited wildlife, there will be fewer tourists. Essentially, we need to work with specific businesses on environmental issues relevant to their own interests, as that will help offset the cost of mitigating environmental degradation.

What’s your vision for UNEP? What are your top priorities for your directorship?

The top priority is to reduce pollution. Seven million people are dying too early because of air pollution. Acting on air pollution will be enormously beneficial in reducing climate warming too, since everything we do to curb pollution will be beneficial in the fight with climate change.

Now, the issue is to protect the rainforests and the other ecosystems of Asia. This means protecting the orangutan and all the species living there - which is of course essential for tourism. And it is also of benefit to the climate, because emissions from deforestation is one of the biggest drivers of climate change.

UNEP has started an inquiry into sustainable finance. What progress has been made on green finance, and where do you see it going in the future?

The sustainable finance sector has gained an enormous amount of interest, partly because of moves made by China during its presidency of the G20. There has also been a certain amount of skepticism about making money from green ventures. Now I think that skepticism has made way for respect for the work that has been done in the sector. We are stepping up our efforts to drive change, but there is still work to be done to resolve issues such as regulation.

COP22 concluded in Marrakech in November last year, and there was a lot of criticism that little was achieved. What is your feeling about the progress that the global community has made on climate change?

The main negotiations took place in Paris. Marrakech was about confirming the will to action in the aftermath of the US election, when there’d been some uncertainty. It was about showcasing how what was agreed in Paris would be delivered, such as the new technologies from the private sector that would be needed.

But do you think the question of how to implement the Paris Agreement was sufficiently addressed in Marrakech?

I think Marrakech was a stepping stone. Of course, there’s a lot more we need to do. We need to rapidly move into renewable energies like solar and wind. We need to rapidly transform agriculture into climate-smart agriculture. We need to make tourism sustainable. We need to curb pollution from various industries. There’s seemingly unending action we need to take. But I think Marrakech provided momentum in the right direction.

What do you think will be the impact of Donald Trump on the environment and the sustainability sector?

It’s far too early to tell. Because he - like any other politician - must be judged on his actions, and we do not know what will happen. But I’m quite confident that that we’ll move rapidly ahead on climate whatever happens in the US.

China will provide leadership. So will the private sector and states in the US like California, New York and even Texas with so many jobs emerging in the renewable energy sector. Even in the worst case scenario, we can still hope that we can engage with the US on providing sustainability leadership.

Are you worried about Trump’s ambitions to bring back to coal, which will lead to an even greater pollution problem?

I’m not really worried about that. Because everyone knows that coal is not the future. There are some investors who really want to buy into coal, but there are many more new jobs in the renewable energy sector [than in coal].

Throughout history there have been people who cling to the past. If you stick to the old, however, you become a nuisance. And I don’t think the United States wants to become nuisance.

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