“Beating pollution for our planet”, a Sting Exclusive by Mr Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment

Erik Solheim UN Environment Executive Director

Mr Erik Solheim, the Executive Director of United Nations Environment (UN Environment, 2017)

This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Mr Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the distinguished writer.

Some may once have seen fighting pollution as a sacrifice made against improving the quality of our lives. The reality could hardly be further from the truth.

Nearly one in four deaths worldwide are currently caused by environmental degradation. In Europe, air pollution is now the biggest killer related to the environment.

Commitments made at the third UN Environment Assembly this week to clean our air, land and water can therefore improve the lives of billions and contribute to achieving the Global Goals.

Ahead of the Assembly, nearly 2.5 million citizens demanded action and issued pledges to beat pollution. In response, 215 governments, 95 civil society organisations and 23 businesses made commitments of their own this week.

These range from pledges to step-up efforts to prevent marine litter and microplastics, reduce air pollution, mitigate pollution in areas affected by armed conflict and boost work to achieve the sustainable management of chemicals and waste.

If we can deliver on the commitments made at the Assembly, 30% of the world’s coastline will be clean.

Eight million tons of plastic currently enters our oceans every year. A plastic bottle dumped in the Mediterranean Sea can end up scarring the Arctic within two years.

Yet plastic waste is essentially an economic problem. Some 40% of used plastic currently goes to landfill, when it could serve countless other uses.

I therefore welcome the European Union’s plan for a circular economy, among the 20 pledges it submitted. By breaking linear economic thinking, the plan can ensure recycling is profitable and normal and inspire other economies worldwide.

At the Assembly, Chile, Oman, South Africa and Sri Lanka were among countries joining our Clean Seas campaign, which looks to fight the root causes of plastic pollution through tools such as legislation and awareness raising. Sri Lanka will from 1 January be among countries banning single-use plastics. The World Plastics Council will meanwhile work with business to raise $150 million to finance solutions to ocean plastic.

Such actions can help achieve Global Goal 12 on sustainable consumption and production and Goal 14 on life below water, among others.

If we can deliver on the commitments made, 1.47 billion people will breathe clean air.

Poor air quality kills 6.5 million people each year by causing respiratory and heart diseases.

Yet by establishing ambitious air pollution standards and improving its monitoring, fighting air pollution at source including through fuel standards and expanding use of clean fuels for cooking, we will create new economic opportunities while saving lives.

Regions in countries such as Italy, Spain, Senegal, Argentina, Mexico and others joined our Breathe Life campaign and will promote renewable energy and clean transport and improve waste management for example. Thanks to civil society, Morocco will meanwhile see fleets of electric scooters hit the road for the first time, while air quality monitoring will begin in Western Kenya, where it is currently practically inexistent.

In this way, we will contribute to achieving Global Goal 3 on good health and wellbeing, among others.

If we can deliver on the commitments made, USD 18.6 billion will be invested in research and innovation

This includes investment in waste management, recycling and clean power from governments, the private sector and civil society. The Netherlands is meanwhile among countries that will speed up the transition to a circular economy by phasing out harmful subsidies.

Yet after the ink has dried and ceremony ends, what comes next?

To ensure the Assembly goes down in history, we must put pressure on companies to turn their business models around and end waste. The fight against pollution is an opportunity –this is why Dell computers is using recovered ocean plastic as part of its packaging for example, while other firms aim to use fully recyclable plastic where possible.

Second, we must speed up the shift to solar power and electricity. The plummeting price of solar technology and the potential for creating jobs from means that this can happen much faster than we may think.

Third, we must improve how we plan our cities. Poor spatial planning is one of the culprits making air pollution worse.

Finally, we must act on chemicals. Under the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management, we aim to achieve the sustainable management of chemicals and waste by 2020.

History teaches us that we all have an important role to play in the fight to beat pollution.

It was civil society groups that first brought the world’s attention to the dangers of mercury pollution, and pushed for policy measures to address it through the Zero Mercury campaign. Fast forward just over a decade and the first international treaty to curb use of the heavy metal since entered into force this summer.

Meanwhile, only a handful of scientists were using the Dobson meter – barely bigger than a coffin – when damage to the ozone layer was first confirmed. Yet this triggered global action and we have since phased out virtually all ozone-harming chemicals under the Montreal Protocol.

The Environment Assembly has only achieved part of its aims so far.

What we must now do is continue to demonstrate how beating pollution is in the interests of not only the environment but also our health, security and economies – and we all have a role to play.

Over 4,000 heads of state, ministers, business leaders, UN officials, civil society representatives, activists and celebrities gathered for the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi this week.

Discover the 13 resolutions issued by the world’s highest-level decision making body on the environment here.

Read on the challenges posed by pollution, current efforts to address it and 50 recommendations to tackle it further in the Towards a pollution-free plant report here.

About the author

Mr Erik Solheim was elected to become Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) on May 13, 2016. Prior to joining UNEP, Mr Solheim was the chair of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). From 2007 to 2012, he held the combined portfolio of Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development, and from 2005 to 2007 served as Minister of International Development. Mr Solheim is also an experienced peace negotiator, having acted as the main facilitator of the peace process in Sri Lanka from 1998 to 2005. In addition to his career as a Minister and at the OECD, he has served as UNEP’s Special Envoy for Environment, Conflict and Disaster since 2013 and a Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 2012. Erik holds a degree in history and social studies from the University of Oslo. He is married with four children.

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