Q&A with Erik Solheim: China and India can help satisfy energy demands in green way

The executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme speaks to about energy access in China and India, and efforts to ban the global illegal animal trade
<p>Erik Solheim [image by:  OECD/Michael Dean]</p>

Erik Solheim [image by: OECD/Michael Dean] (TTP): In today’s world, what do you think is the role of UNEP, especially vis-à-vis developing countries?

Erik Solheim (ES): The main role of UNEP [United Nations Environment Programme] is advocacy for the environment. Within these parameters, I see my role as the promotion of economic systems which work to help the environment. We partner with governments, such as with India on its Clean India [Swachh Bharat] campaign, its solar energy and green growth campaigns.

UNEP has the capacity to help highlight best practices, to help partner with the private sector, and to work with citizens such as Afroz Shah, who has been behind the volunteer campaign to clean Versova beach in Maharashtra. It’s become the biggest beach cleaning campaign in the world and has been recognised by the Chief Minister of Maharashtra and the Indian Prime Minister. We can support such bottom-up initiatives by highlighting their effectiveness and success.

TTP: A big challenge for countries in Asia is energy and access to electricity. China highlighted this as it pursued a heavily coal-dependent growth path, and countries in South Asia are also engaged in this. How do we manage the demand for electricity that is pushing forward polluting growth?

ES: There is no dispute about the right to electricity. The former UN Secretary General [Ban Ki-moon] has talked about his childhood and reading by candlelight, so development is possible without access to electricity — but it is incredibly hard. We must work to satisfy this demand in an environmentally-friendly manner.

In this regard, countries like China and India are actually a help. The price of solar and wind power has plummeted because Indian and Chinese markets are so large. This has made the purely implementation part of renewable energy cheap – even if we ignore the long-term costs of cleaning the pollution and the health costs associated with coal, which are massive.

TTP: How do developed and developing countries work with each other to make this future possible?

ES: I am not sure these categories matter as much anymore. Places like Guangdong in China are much richer in purchasing power parity terms than many parts of Europe. There is, in this, a lot of opportunity for mutual learning. For example, I have just been in Vietnam which has better education for children aged 15 than the United States or European countries. We must work together. Politicians arguing that countries can succeed on their own are promoting a failed concept.

TTP: You recently wrote an article about the death of African elephants and the conflict between land for farming and animals. Can you talk a little about the human-animal conflict?

ES: There are two main threats to animals. The first is this shrinking space due to the expansion of urban areas and because of the need for farming to provide food for the human population. The second is the illegal trade in animal products. There is some good news in the latter, as the decline in tiger numbers has reversed. This is a big deal because tigers require huge spaces and can also kill people unlike, for example, wolves in Scandinavia which have never killed a person. We need to acknowledge the work of people like President Putin in Russia. We also have to acknowledge the work of China, especially its leaders in Sichuan, on the panda. They have worked with technology so that pandas don’t have to interact with humans and can be released into the wild more easily.

TTP: But China’s ‘tiger farms’ have not helped.

ES: Tigers are difficult, and we need more and larger preservation areas for such species that cannot interact with humans easily. What we sometimes ignore, though, is that most animals are immensely adaptive and co-exist easily with humans.

Urbanisation should be a positive possibility. Urban areas have been the greatest drivers that bring people out of poverty, but we need to make sure that these are liveable cities with green spaces and limited traffic and slums. We need better design and better traffic systems.

This can be done. Singapore is an excellent example of a city that has gone from poverty to being green and efficient due to getting urban policy right. Shenzhen, in China, a city that is almost new and is already home to 15 million people has a good public transport system.

For all of this we need global cooperation; we need to work on this together. If we listen to politicians who are engaged in blaming others we will achieve nothing.

TTP: But bad and uncoordinated policies exist and those gaps have created unjust systems that violent groups exploit for their own purposes. You have a background in dealing with conflict management, can you tell us how these issues intersect?

ES: One of the main issues in terrorism and such issues is crime. Whether they start with ideology or crime, it is often financed by drugs or environmental crime such as illegal poaching and logging. One of the mysteries and failures of global systems is the lack of attention that means such types of global crime are ignored.

It is cheaper to fight these types of crimes than fight complex weapons systems such as drone warfare. The sale of illicit animal products is a part of global crime that needs to be dealt with. I am glad that China has banned ivory products and is clamping down on the ivory trade. Vietnam is also moving in this direction, and it needs to become a police priority.