“The entire world needs to up its game” interview with Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment

May 11, 2018 | News

By <a href="" target="_self">George Catchpole</a>

By George Catchpole

Marketing Manager

By ThePlanetMark Friday, May 11, 2018

How satisfied are you with the progress being made by countries around the world to meeting the Paris Agreement?

The science from the most recent Emissions Gap report is very clear on this: everybody needs to do better. Of course, it’s possible to single out nations that are doing well and other who are coasting along, but the general picture is that the entire world needs to up its game.

What has been the biggest success and biggest challenge you have experienced as Head of the UN Environment?

I think we’ve helped made huge progress on several fronts. For example, our Ozone team has brokered a new global agreement that will see the progressive phase out of HFCs, a gas found in cooling systems and other industrial processes and products. This is a big deal because HFCs are also a powerful greenhouse gas, so the agreement could have a big positive impact on climate change. Our oceans work has helped draw global attention to the problem of plastics in the ocean, and we’re at the centre of a global move towards stronger action on how we deal with plastic waste. Other successes have been our campaigning on the illegal wildlife trade and air quality in cities: in China in particular, we’ve seen a ban on the ivory trade, and increased action on pollution. I’d like to think that we at UN Environment have played a role in shaping these actions!

The challenges are more of the day-to-day type: trying to steer a bureaucracy and implement reforms, to ensure that we are better able to deliver on our mandate and so that member states and people see the real value of the United Nations and the work we do.

Recent evidence has inferred that limiting global warming to 1.5C could have significant economic benefits. Do you think that the correlation between economic growth and climate variability may become more apparent moving forward?

I think we’re seeing that correlation now, and regrettably it’s a negative one. You only have to look at the devastation wrought by the recent hurricane season in the Caribbean, Florida and Gulf of Mexico to see the spiralling costs of extreme weather events. If such super storms start to become the new normal, then that will have a major impact on everyone in that region – starting from the cost of insurance to keeping a business open year-round. Certainly, the economies can adapt, but we also need to mitigate.

What would you say to people who spread the narrative that “it’s too late” to save our climate?

The choice is as follows: we can either try to limit climate change to a manageable level, that is an overall rise (above pre-industrial levels) of 2 degrees Celsius or better still less, or we do nothing, and we face catastrophic climate change. However, I think it’s important to frame the debate in a different way. We should not just talk about the dangers of climate change, but rather the benefits of taking decisive action and substantially cutting carbon emissions. For example, if we shift to clean, renewable energy like solar and wind, the data shows that this creates more jobs, better paid jobs and more geographically distributed employment than fossil fuels. Another benefit is less pollution, which has a huge positive impact on public health. It could lead to improvements in global energy security that will help global stability. These are all powerful arguments that make sound political, economic and social sense. What’s not to like?

Do you think Michael Bloomberg’s pledge to cover the $4.5m shortfall to the Paris climate accord forces Donald Trump to reconsider US withdrawal?

Of course, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement was a disappointment, and I continue to hope there will be a change of heart. But I think that if anything, Michael Bloomberg’s pledge highlights the fact that despite the decision taken in the White House, there are many parts of the United States where exciting climate action is being taken and the commitment is very strong. We can see this in a number of states, and in businesses like Apple, Walmart, Microsoft and so on, who are leading on drastic emissions cuts and more sustainable supply chains.

Has the International Energy Agency’s announcement that carbon emissions grew by 1.7% rendered the Paris agreement targets unattainable?

No, it just makes it tougher to hit the goals. Our latest report on the global emissions gap showed that even if all the Paris commitments are met – including those from the United States before President Trump announced he was pulling out – then we’re still headed for a temperature rise of 2.9 to 3.4oC this century. That’s too far above the minimum goal of limiting temperature rise to 1.5 oC. At the same time, we’ve seen a remarkable shift in China and India, both of whom are moving rapidly towards renewables. So I’m optimistic that we’ll continue to see exponential progress. I think we’re at a turning point. We just need to move much faster.

With the vast majority of the world’s asset managers, pension funds, multinational banks, and insurance companies continuing to invest largely as normal, is there a shortage of information available, or a failure to understand the risks of not divesting from fossil fuel assets?

It’s not business as usual. The big investors are changing course, albeit not as quickly as we’d like them to. We’ve seen numerous recent examples of increased fossil fuel divestment by major investment funds. There are also changes in the big pension funds. This is an area where UN Environment has been working very closely with the financial sector, precisely to increase an understanding of the risks and the know-how.

With SMEs accounting for over 99 % of enterprises in the EU, how important is it for them to adopt sustainable practices if we are to achieve the targets set out in the Paris agreement?

I would encourage SMEs to adopt sustainable practices not because of the Paris Agreement, but because of their own bottom line. The lesson from the big firms and the markets right now is that sustainable business is good business.

What advice do you have for organisations that are not currently monitoring or reducing their carbon footprint?

Firstly, that they’re doing the wrong thing – both for moral reasons and for business reasons. The markets are moving, and investors are increasingly looking at the prospect of an economy where carbon is priced. They’re looking for sustainable investments that will perform in a changed economy.

What do you think is the most effective method for businesses to ensure continuous improvement of their carbon footprint?

The biggest step is accurate measurement. That will enable businesses to identify carbon hotspots – which could be transportation, heating or cooling, supply chains or any other section of the business. If there was a single magic bullet solution to reduce carbon emissions, I’d say it’s getting good, actionable data.

The Planet Mark™ is helping businesses measure and reduce their carbon footprint year-on-year. What advice do you have for businesses looking to cut their carbon?

I would tell companies that they should look at this change as similar to the digital revolution, that anyone who is not on board will be left behind!