“Joining forces to #BeatPollution”, a Sting Exclusive by the Head of UNEP in Brussels

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Ulf Björnholm, Head of UNEP Brussels

Exclusively written for the Sting by Mr Ulf Björnholm, Head of the United Nations Environment Programme’s Liaison Office to the EU institutions.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “pollution”? And what do you think can be done about it?

For me, I picture myself as a 10-year-old, somewhere in a clear-cut forest in mid-west Sweden in the 1980s. My family was demonstrating against pesticide spraying. However, unlikely as it may seem today, it was customary throughout the 1960s and 1970s to spray aggressive chemical herbicides from airplanes to kill off all deciduous trees. To stop this, courageous people positioned themselves in the middle of the clearing, dressed-up in colorful clothes to be visible from the sky. As the chemical was a direct health threat, the pilots were not allowed to spray if they saw people.

I vividly remember the mounting tension while waiting for the plane to show up. We would eventually hear a roar from afar and spot wings in the horizon, getting increasingly nervous that the pilots would not see us, or that they would break the rules and spray us anyway. We had brought umbrellas, just in case – not that it would help that much… Luckily, the pilots always turned back.

These protests turned out to be very successful. Not only did they temporarily stop the spraying, they also created significant media attention and spurred an intensive debate, leading to the banning of the chemical by the early 1980s. This was a crucial win for a growing environmental movement to advance environmental awareness and policy, something that is now mainstream in many countries. Today, everybody including the forestry industry agrees that killing deciduous trees is a really terrible idea – also economically.

There are many other inspirational stories. A few decades ago, forests in Europe were dying due to rainfall polluted by sulphur from power stations, industries and cars. Today, most young people have no idea what “acid rain” means. Many previously polluted water courses in Europe are again swimmable. At global level, substances depleting the ozone-layer, a part of the atmosphere that protects us from skin cancer, are almost entirely phased out.

Behind this progress lies tireless efforts by governments, international organizations, civil society movements and individuals, and a handful of cutting-edge companies, many of which are very profitable today.

However, much remains to be done to clean up our environment, in Europe and elsewhere. Pollution takes many forms – let me mention just a few examples, taken from our Towards a Pollution-free Planet report, issued in the run-up to the third Environment Assembly taking place next month on this topic.

Every year, more than 12 million people lose their lives due to environmental causes; at least 6 million from breathing dirty air. This represents 23% of all deaths globally.

Between 4.8 million and 12.7 million tons of plastic waste ends up in the ocean annually – about one truckload per minute!

Over 80 per cent of the world’s wastewater is released into the environment without treatment, often causing severe disease, suffering and early deaths.

The 50 biggest active dump sites globally affect the lives of 64 million people – causing disease, poisoning, and allergies.

Pollution is about life and death for millions of people worldwide. Yet, pollution rarely hits the tabloids and twitter feeds, and it is certainly not at the top of the political agenda.

Outside the media spotlights, the UN has been working to solve the pollution challenge for decades. In just a few weeks, the global pollution threat will be raised to the highest political level when the world’s environmental leaders meet in Nairobi at the UN Environment Assembly. The EU is demonstrating leadership, by pushing for ambitious global decisions to be agreed at the Assembly, and by announcing 20 concrete EU-wide pollution commitments, complemented by a range of individual Member States’ pledges, and several European companies are showcasing effective pollution solutions.

But success will not only be measured by country and private sector action. As a representative of UN Environment in Brussels, I am often asked what individual citizens can do. As I see it, there are at least three complementary avenues to make a difference.

First, vote for politicians with a strong green agenda. Make your voice heard to influence politicians that are already in power. Call on our political leaders to commit at the UN Environment Assembly to #BeatPollution!

Second, “vote” with your money: choose natural, energy efficient and clean products and services – you will be supporting pioneering private companies to #BeatPollution.

Third, challenge yourself to use fewer resources: cut down on single use plastics, recycle your waste, use public transport and be energy efficient. And then, make it all official! On the Assembly website, you can join some 1.5 million other world citizens by signing your own pledge to #BeatPollution. It is empowering, thought-provoking and fun!

Together, we can clean up the planet. Let’s join forces to #BeatPollution!

About the author

Ulf Björnholm UNEP Brussels

Ulf Björnholm took up his duties as Head of the United Nations Environment Programme‘s Liaison Office to the EU Institutions on 22 April 2014.

Prior to joining UNEP, he served in the European Commission where he played a leading role in developing a proposal for a new EU Clean Air Policy, presented in 2013, and in international UN negotiations relating to air pollution.

Mr. Björnholm has also held several positions as a representative and diplomat for the Swedish Government, both in Stockholm and abroad. In his role as a political advisor and negotiator on international environmental affairs for Sweden, he chaired and represented the EU at several UN/EU environmental negotiations during two EU Presidencies – in New York (2001) and in Brussels (2009). For more than seven years, he served as Environment and Climate Counsellor at the Swedish Permanent Representation to the EU in Brussels.

Ulf Björnholm has a Master of Science from the University of Lund.

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