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'Entire economy thrives on the destruction of nature'

January 25, 2019

Overconsumption is destroying nature, warned Achim Steiner, UN Development Programme chief, at the World Economic Form in Davos. A new environment business partnership could help curb that destruction, he told DW.

People picking through plastic trash
Image: Getty Images/AFP/J. Kriswanto

DW: World wildlife is under threat. Animals are in decline. Should we be worried?

Achim Steiner: I think we have to worry a great deal. We are losing natural habitats and species. But we're also losing ecosystems every day on an unprecedented scale. These are the foundations of life on the planet.

Read more: Time running out to save the Earth's plants and animals

We need to understand the importance of an ecosystem, of a tree and even of a bee. We need to learn how our consumption patterns, how our economies and how our pollution contributes to the decline of these ecosystems.

UNO Achim Steiner
Achim Steiner: Human well-being depends on our understanding of how our decisions affect the planetImage: picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS/A. Katz

Our daily well-being depends on understanding all of this. But more importantly, we need to do something about it.

What can be done?

A lot. First of all, we all need to accept that we are either part of helping to solve the problem or that we're making it worse.

It begins with the way we consume, how we pollute, what we do in our daily activities and whether we do or don't buy certain products.

Read more: Can we consume less without wrecking the economy?

But it's not only on the consumer. It's also on the producers. We need to learn how to produce things differently, more sustainably. 

Unfortunately, the entire economy today thrives on the destruction of nature. 

At the United Nations, we're trying to get people to understand just how important their individual actions are. Seven billion people acting together can literally change the world.

Read more: Bye bye lignite: Understanding Germany's coal phaseout

You helped to create an initiative called 'The Lion's Share.' What is it about?

The Lion's Share is a fascinating idea born out of the world of business and advertising.

The advertising industry speaks to billions of people every day. So, we've decided to combine animal images and animal stories to gain an advertising budget for the protection of habitats and animals around the world.

We've attracted some of the biggest names in the advertising industry and also their customers, and so, a small percentage from advertising will go to the fund.

As a partner in this, the UN family and the UNDP (UN Development Programme) will help take these funds back into conservation and towards the protection of nature. It's an extraordinary example of how a business-first world can become part of the solution.

Read more: Protecting our forests — A vital ecosystem under threat

It's an enormous opportunity to raise awareness and make us all part of the solution. The Lion's Share is a groundbreaking partnership, and I hope it will change the way we look at the using everyday decisions to change the future.

Have you started already using the funds of The Lion's Share for a project?

We have indeed. The Lion's Share is a very new platform. But we've already gained some projects.

For instance, we're helping to rehabilitate a former oil palm plantation into a natural habitat in Indonesia. We're also working on an anti-poaching initiative in Southern Africa. 

Trees cut down to make way for an oil palm concession
Global hunger for palm oil has led to deforestation and loss of biodiversity around the worldImage: Aidenvironment

The idea is really to find ways in which we can multiply and scale up these investments — that's the opportunity. And the fund itself is one more additional opportunity to invest in protecting nature.

Read More: Can the African wild dog be saved from extinction?

At the end of the day, The Lion's Share is going to have a far greater impact because of the communication it enables. It brings consumers, companies, land users and conservationists together. It's a 21st century idea and a 21st century partnership.

Achim Steiner is an environmentalist and administrator with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The interview was conducted by Manuela Kasper-Claridge at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. It has been edited for length and clarity.