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UN Environment Chief: 'The solutions are there'

Irene Quaile
September 18, 2019

In her role as of the new head of the United Nations Environment Program, Danish economist Inger Andersen talks to DW about the need to think big when it comes to climate change – and to learn from our mistakes.

BdTD Buschfeuer in Australien
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/AAP/J. O'brien

At the start of this year, Danish economist and environmentalist Inger Andersen was appointed as the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). DW spoke to her about her new role and the environmental challenges of our time. 

DW: Where does the organization stand as you take over at the helm of the UNEP?

Inger Andersen: At this time it may be more where the planet stands because we are in a planetary crisis. What I need to do is to reflect back to the world that we have the actions in our hands and if we take the right choices and make the right policy shifts, we can actually get to solutions.

We need to have a conversation about how ambitious we are going to be on climate, on nature and its protection and on the pollution load we are willing to let into our planet and our terrestrial and marine environments.

Degraded landscape Kenya Laikipia
Degraded land is often not put to useImage: Naomi Larsson

How do you see the relationship between halting climate change and protecting the environment?

We need to focus on investing in what I like to refer to as "nature's infrastructure." We need to invest in greenery and we need to invest in forests. There are about one to 1.5 billion hectares of degraded forest land which are not used for anything, so let's invest in that, grow trees. If we were to do that, nature would give us a break of about 12 gigatons of carbon.

And when we invest in nature, we also get biodiversity back. When we invest in nature we also ensure that we get better health outcomes. So there are lots of good outcomes from investing in nature.

Read more: World must invest $1.8 trillion to take on climate change — report

That all sounds very good, but we're not doing terribly well right now.

We are not. And I guess the issue is that these are difficult choices. It's difficult to make those shifts rapidly, but thinking of it on the bigger global scale, shortly after 2050, there will be nearly 10 billion people on this planet. And today we have about 800 million people going to bed hungry and about 1.3 billion living in extreme poverty.

These people have every right  to aspire to what you and I have. But if we all live like you and I, we would need five planets. So the truth of the matter is, we need to have this conversation. The good news is that governments are stepping up. Businesses are stepping up. Our children are in the street demanding this and calling us out as a generation that has failed them on climate action.

Inger Andersen
Inger Andersen is the new Executive Director of the UNEPImage: Getty Images/R. Hradil

Do you think we could be at a kind of turning point with movements like Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and so on?

I think we have never seen so much awareness around environmental matters. I think that awareness is something that politicians of any shade or color better pay attention to because these young people may be 16 today but a couple of years from now, they will be voting. So I do think that yes, this is part of a turning point but we need to have the solutions and the solutions are there.

There are some important governments in the world whose priorities are not protecting the environment. What can an organization like UNEP do for instance when the government in Brazil opens the rainforest to more logging and development?

Tropic forest is absolutely keyto ensuring the stability of the planet's climate. We speak to facts and data and to evidence, and the evidence and the data is very very clear that it is absolutely imperative that we protect the large tropical forests wherever they may be in Africa in the Americas or in Asia.

If we take another difficult example, for instance the USA under President Trump. How can you still be optimistic with all of those things going on in the background?

You can't be an environmentalist in 2019 and not be an optimist. Because clearly there are challenges but there are also solutions. And what I see is that there is a commitment from American CEOs. There is a commitment from the American populace, from state governments and there is a strong commitment amongst the business community to lean in on climate positive actions.

Is there a danger that the speed of climate change and environmental degradation is overtaking our scientific research and the speed with which politicians are taking action?

There is absolutely that danger. But we still need the science to keep informing us. The science, yes it evolves and it has to be there to tell us other actions that we need to be mindful of. The earlier scenarios, those we discussed in Copenhagen in 2009 when we agreed on the 2 degrees, we now know that those scenarios are no longer as viable as what the 1.5 degree report tells us.

Read more: The global injustice of the climate crisis

Heaps of plastic bags stacked against the shore
Africa is leading the way on plastic bag bansImage: cribe - stock.adobe.com

Pollution, and plastic pollution in particular, also poses a threat to the planet. Have we reached a point where we have to find alternatives to our lifestyles?

I should hope so. By 2050, we will have about a billion metric tons of plastic in our landfills. We need to make a shift. We're seeing a number of countries introduce bans. Today we have 27 countries in Africa that have banned single-use plastic bags.

How do you see the role of Africa as we try to bring about a transition to sustainable societies without limiting the opportunities of countries in the developing world?

We all need to understand that Africa's aspiration is no different than those of other countries in earlier times. That means Africa will be wanting to invest, and rightly so, in infrastructure. But why go through a polluting age like my country and yours did. Why not leapfrog right into the green economy? And that's a real opportunity that many African countries are grabbing. Kenya has invested more than one billion dollars in renewables.

Poorer countries want wealth, they want growth, they want the opportunity to have what you and I have. But in a smarter way. And the solutions are there because today we have energy options that are cleaner. So there is a chance to hop over a polluting age — if we get it right.

The interview was conducucted by Irene Quaile and has been condensed and edited for clarity.