Making the Environment an Ally for Peace: Q&A with Erik Solheim

Indian women carry drinking water from a well to their village of Meja near Allahabad, India. January 20, 2017. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press)

Policymakers need to better connect environmental management with respect for other important social values, according to United Nations Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim, who highlighted economic growth and human health among these.

“Let me give you one prime example: I’m just back from India, and very few people in India speak about climate change,” Mr. Solheim said. “The prime minister very rarely speaks about climate change; however, the prime minister has in many ways set India on a strong path toward delivering on the Paris Agreement. He speaks about electrifying villages, promoting economic growth, getting green jobs, but all done by solar energy and other renewal energy.”

Speaking with International Peace Institute Research Fellow Jimena Leiva Roesch, Mr. Solheim said it defeated the purpose of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to treat achievement of environmental protection and other outcomes such as development as separate work streams.

He also highlighted the cases of tourism in Kenya and Rwanda, where the economic value of local wildlife has seen villagers take a more protective stance against poachers.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve been in New York these past two days to speak with various UN agencies about the relationship between the environment and conflict. What are the key takeaways that you can share with us from this?

I think the main takeaway is that there is a huge consensus that you need to work on the environmental aspects of conflicts, in the positive sense. There’s an opportunity for bringing people together to see how we can create jobs, which is a key issue when people want to get out of conflict. But the environment is also as an amplifier of conflict—there are many conflicts about natural resources and climate change, bad water management, droughts are driving conflicts…and people are displaced and maybe more easy to pick up by rebel groups or armed forces, whatever it may be.

UN Environment is going into some areas and looking at the environmental dimension at the request of either the governments or the key peacemakers designated by the UN and the international system to work on conflicts. We have been requested by the government of Colombia to work on that on the situation there after the FARC agreement and we were requested by government of Iraq to go into Iraq, and it certainly takes time to rethink how we can assist when Daesh is involved.

And no one is opposed to our involvement, as long as we are requested by the government, so it’s on a case-by-case basis. If we were to work in, say, Syria, which may be more complicated, we would do it in the closest cooperation with [UN Special Envoy] Staffan de Mistura, who is the designated representative of the international community. If he doesn’t sound interested, our premise is we can’t do everything and we would go somewhere else.

At the end of the day we have limited human capacity, limited resources, limited number of staff, we can only be some places, and we prioritize where we receive interest. I was the chief negotiator on the peace process in Sri Lanka for many years, for example, and my experience was that unless the president and Tamil Tigers saw any interest in you being there, you couldn’t achieve anything. You can have a small project somewhere, you can assist some people in the village, but you cannot achieve anything in the big picture unless you are assisting the key drivers of the war, or the key peacemakers.

One of the advantages of the SDGs are the linkages, so the environment is no longer divorced from growth, nor from peace. What role do you see for UN Environment in contributing to the 2030 agenda, while taking into account this new mindset?

We want to connect and link the environment issues with other issues. Let me give you one prime example: I’m just back from India, and very few people in India speak about climate change. The prime minister very rarely speaks about climate change; however, the prime minister has in many ways set India on a strong path toward delivering on the Paris Agreement. But he speaks about electrifying villages, promoting economic growth, getting green jobs, but all done by solar energy and other renewal energy. So, this is about economic development and growth and environment at the same time. And we would be completely defeating the whole idea of the Sustainable Development Goals if we were to see these as separate work streams.

Moving on, China’s completely turned around its climate policies, but it’s more about human health than the climate as such because they want to protect the inhabitants of Beijing and other cities, and those people are demanding action from the government because they are so tired of the overwhelming pollution. Basically, whatever they want to do for public health and climate comes together. So, that’s my idea with this.

What are the opportunities of working in Nairobi, where UN Environment is based?

I think there are many disadvantages in terms of Nairobi being further away from the international press and many other things, but there is also a benefit of being away from New York. The developing world is transforming the planet—I just pointed to China and India. Africa has very rapid economic growth as its population grows, so our position is an advantage.

There are one million young Africans joining the job market every month, all of them with many ambitions, but all of with the ambition of a job, because with no job how can you have a family, how can you have kids, how can you have a future? But these jobs will have to come in the green sector, and more and more of them are because renewables and solar in particular is competitive with coal everywhere.

Tourism is also a key economic driver of Africa. The main draw for tourists to come to at the end of the day, is elephants, lions, zebras, giraffes, and if you cannot protect them it will destroy the economy. That’s why the president of Kenya announced plans burn a huge amount of ivory to make the point, because we need to destroy this ivory business. It’s killing elephants and destroying the economy.

To give a positive example, in neighboring Rwanda they have had enormous success in protecting the gorillas. Why is that? In each, you can actually put a dollar figure on their preservation: One gorilla makes income for Rwanda of one million dollars in terms of restaurants, hotels, taxis, and all these things included in tourism. This means that the villages around the national park have become its main defenders. If the villages were working with the poachers and wanting to destroy the wildlife, you couldn’t send an army big enough to protect it, but when the villages are the main protectors, then, of course, it is enormously successful.

You spoke about climate action, and we know that you’ve been involved in this field for a long time. What do you see as the next steps to implement the Paris Agreement, particularly now that the global environment shifting and some countries that have been in the lead are stepping back?

If the United States is getting out of its leadership, we will count on China, India, and the European Union in particular, but also everyone else to join in and provide the leadership. But what’s really interesting in the United States itself is that the private sector is now driving things. I hope it will not happen, but even if the United States were to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, the United States would probably still fulfill the promises they made in Paris because it’s not the White House that’s driving it, but the private sector.

As an example, last week one of the big coal companies in Kentucky decided to make a major investment not in coal, but in solar. The biggest brewery in the US—they’re making Budweiser, Corona—has decided to be fully renewable by 2025, Google will be renewable this year, and Walmart has decided on a major reduction in their emissions. And when Walmart was asked how does that fit with the policy of the US president, they said, “We don’t do this for the president, we do it for our customers, for the people of America, for the environment. At the end of the day we do it for ourselves because it’s a sound economic decision. We make more money if we make that transformation.”

The relationship between the UN and the private sector has always been complicated. What type of steps can we take so that the private sector becomes more of an ally for the environment and for peace?

We can work with those companies at the forefront of the change. In all kinds of business some companies are ahead of the others and driving the change. We could work with them, speak about them, promote them, help them in taking over markets, and also in setting standards and norms. They can be voluntary or mandatory, but standards and norms drives others to follow. To continue this, two weeks back the stock exchange value of Tesla surpassed the stock exchange value of General Motors, but Tesla’s hardly making cars. They’re making a small amount of cars, so it’s all about how markets and investors see the future. They believe the future is with Tesla, that’s why they want to invest. It’s environment friendly, but it’s also because the prices can be so rapidly drawn down, so it would become competitive. Very few people are ready to pay a lot more for environmentally friendly products, but most people want environment friendly products if they can also compete in price.

The last question is about water. So many studies have predicted that it will likely lead to or be a driver of conflict, and we may soon need water diplomats or climate envoys to ensure peace rather than conflict. What challenges do you see in sustaining peace in this respect?

That’s an absolute essential question, and in fact it was also raised when I met with the UN Department of Political Affairs this morning, how to do better water diplomacy? There are nations with different interests along rivers, and typically the upriver nation and the downriver nation have different interests. Let me give you one example: In Somalia there is a huge threat of drought and it’s coming in a nation which has been devastated by war for very long. This drought may displace people, and if people can only feed their families by going to al-Shabaab, for sure everyone will go to al-Shabaab. So we have an emphasis on increasing opportunities for people to feed their family through better water management.

Iran will also arrange a global conference on sand and dust storms in Tehran in the first week of July. Sand and dust storms are now absolutely devastating many cities in Iran, and also in other countries and that’s all about water management. If you manage the wetlands and agricultural water better, you will have no sand and dust storms, or at least much fewer.

How to learn from the examples of those parts of the world that have really been successful in managing water is absolutely key. So it’s about preventing conflict, and it’s also about managing and keeping peace, or, as you said, sustaining peace.