Environment, development, conflicts confront new UNEP head (Comment, Special to IANS)

A frightening but most authoritative report on the state of the environment released by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in May 2016 was eclipsed in the bedlam of terrorist attacks, tsunami of migration, the shocking Brexit and power plays in the South China Sea.

The Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) stated that the environment is deteriorating faster than previously thought, making it imperative that governments act now to reverse the worst trends. The red alert that nature’s over-exploitation can portent food shortages, enhance water scarcity, lead the world to unknown and deadly diseases, destabilize the economy and even dislodge entire populations met with mute response by the world’s policy makers.

The axis evidenced by UNEP between environmental degradation and economic instability, raging wars and never-ending conflicts met with a wall of silence by the leaders of major economies.

The piercing buzzer for the Asia-Pacific, home to more than 60 per cent of the global population, is that more than 40 per cent of all natural disasters reported over the last two decades occurred in the this region, which also accounted for 91 per cent of the world’s deaths attributable to natural disasters in the last century. The indiscriminate and unsustainable consumption of natural resources by a burgeoning two billion plus middle class – not excluding 15 million millionaires and billionaires – is pointed as the main driver for natural disasters.

Thus, the entry this week of a new UNEP Executive Director, Erick Solheim, heralds some meaningful transformation in the way the world will treat ecological collapse. He has the distinct character and background to make a difference by opening the windows in the tall walls and unlocking the gates of the formidable fencing to allow integrated and inclusive solutions to the growing paradox of development and environment.

What’s more, he also has the potential to contribute to launch a global thought process on the root causes embedded in the ecological degradation that fuels violence, conflicts and destabilization of society. He can strengthen the belief that keeping the peace between nations is better achieved not by focusing on the front-line and trenches in the battlegrounds but by promoting harmony between humans and nature at the rear end.

Solheim, a Norwegian, has been elected by the United Nations General Assembly for a four-year term. He, unlike his predecessors, is known not only as an environmental steward or green politician but is also known to have hands-on experience in peacekeeping and management of disaster and conflicts. He goes beyond making the routine appeal of need-to-take-action-for-the-next-generation approach. He looks more for ways to promote long-term peace through meaningful diplomacy, sustainable and inclusive developmental cooperation. Never before has UNEP had a leader with such a multi-dimensional background.

Solheim, who in the past struggled as a socialist for saving the environment through NGOs, has served as Norway’s Minister of International Development and later held the combined portfolio of Minister of the Environment and International Development. He has also played a role in international negotiations for environmental issues like climate change as well as peace-making efforts, notably in Sri Lanka.

Solheim will lead the UNEP when it is undergoing a critical transformation on the global stage. Established in 1972 as a sequel to the Stockholm conference on Human Environment, UNEP is an authoritative voice on global environmental issues.

However, except for global accords like the Montreal Protocol that was aimed at protecting the ozone layer, many of the authoritative voices from UNEP unfortunately evoked deceitful hypocrisy from the world leaders. The positioning of UNEP within the UN-edifice, overlapping environmental mandates of UN agencies and competition between them for the funding from the depleted global purse are some of the reasons for the passive heeding of UNEP’s findings.

In December 2012, following the Rio+20 Summit, the General Assembly decided to “strengthen and upgrade” UNEP. It also established the universal membership (193 countries) of its governing council, now called the United Nations Environmental Assembly (UNEA), the highest decision-making body on environmental matters in the UN system.

It is said that such transformation of UNEP, widely credited to the all-out efforts of outgoing chief Achim Steiner, more than four decades after its establishment, symbolizes its coming of the age. It would bring the nexus of environmental degradation and developmental imperatives as well as social and economical conflicts in the global amphitheater.

The UNEA’s second session was held just a month before Solheim’s June 26 entry into UNEP.

“Leading UNEP into the future at this critical juncture in history carries with it great expectations. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have given us a renewed framework to work towards protecting our vulnerable earth while bringing every human being out of poverty”, he stated while taking charge.

Solheim is a strong believer in the potential of the private sector to be the game changer to achieve the SDGs unanimously agreed to by all nations at the UN last September. As a Chair of the Development Assistance Committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), he recognized that trillions of dollars of incremental resources needed over next 15 years to achieve SDGs would not be forthcoming without the private sector’s active investments.

Indeed, over the next 15 years, the private sector is projected to invest about $20 trillion, but redirecting it for achieving sustainable development would be the indicator of how Solheim leverages his multi-dimensional character.

(Rajendra Shende, an IIT-Alumni, is Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and a former UNEP Director. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at shende.rajendra@ians.in)

–IANS

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