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New U.N. Environment Head Has Eye for Arctic

HIGH NORTH NEWS: Norway’s former environment and development minister Erik Solheim is to run the United Nations environment agency. Issues concerning the Arctic, its ocean and marine resources will be among his top priorities.

Written by Berit Enge Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Two polar bears sit on a chunk of sea ice surrounded by open water and thin sea ice.U.S. Geological Survey/Jessica Robertson

When Erik Solheim tweeted about his nomination to become the next head of the United Nations environment program (UNEP), he chose a photo of a desperate polar bear perched on top of a melting piece of Arctic ice. That was a message of how important the High North will be – even as he sets off south, to Nairobi.

“It is an iconic photo and a symbol of dramatic climate change, caught on camera by the Norwegian photographer Arne Naevra. What happens in the Arctic is one of the most important environmental issues in the world. Issues concerning the oceans of the world need more attention globally,” said Solheim in a phone interview from Paris, where he chairs the OECD development committee (DAC). Come this summer, he will be moving on to the U.N. in Nairobi.

U.N. important on environment and climate

U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has nominated Norway’s former international development and environment minister Solheim to take over the helm of UNEP after Germany’s Achim Steiner, who will step down July 1.

UNEP, headquartered in Kenya, promotes and coordinates the U.N.’s environmental and climate efforts. Solheim is eager to strengthen the world’s cooperative engagement in this area.

“The most important decision-makers on the environment are the national governments. It is the U.N. member states themselves who have to decide whether to protect wolves in Norway or step up efforts to curb air pollution in Beijing. But the U.N. has an important role to play in strengthening the collective drive of the international society to improve environmental policies. We have to work closely with governments and business, and we have to make sure that we can access the best information available. And we have to share successful solutions. If something works well in one part of the world, chances are it will work well elsewhere, too,” said Solheim.

U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon has been strongly engaged in environment and climate policy, including in the Arctic. Ban and Solheim have visited Svalbard together, and Solheim praises Ban’s efforts.

“The secretary-general has been very active and engaged, not least on the Arctic. The Paris agreement on climate change and the U.N.’s 17 sustainable development goals will be key parts of Ban’s legacy,” said Solheim. He added that he hopes the next secretary-general will be equally involved. Ban will finish his term at the end of this year.

Erik Solheim will take over as head of the U.N. environment program in July, when Germany’s Achim Steiner steps down. (OECD/Julien Daniel)

Erik Solheim will take over as head of the U.N. environment program in July, when Germany’s Achim Steiner steps down. (OECD/Julien Daniel)

The Arctic – a key priority

As head of UNEP, the veteran Norwegian politician will have numerous challenges waiting for him in his inbox. He makes it clear that the Arctic will be among his key priorities:

“Issues concerning oceans and in particular the Arctic will be very important. Of the 17 U.N. sustainable development goals, goal number 14, about sustainable use of the oceans and marine resources, has not at all received the attention it deserves. What happens in the ocean is not as visible as rainforest degradation or mountains of trash. Securing more global attention to these issues will be among my top priorities,” said Solheim.

In his candidature for the UNEP position, Solheim received strong support from countries in Asia and Africa. Solheim has an extensive international high-level network, which he will draw on to promote the U.N.’s environmental agenda. Challenges abound, and environmental concerns often come up against economic interests. Can the U.N. and UNEP succeed in a world where climate skeptics remain numerous and economic heavyweights might fight the U.N. agenda? Yes, said Solheim:

“The U.N. is crucial in order to move public opinion. Climate resistance is not always based on science. Economic considerations may be more important,” he said. “But a stronger, science-based public opinion makes it more difficult for climate skeptics to win support. And the U.N. must keep countries accountable for the agreements they have signed.”

Cooperation between governments and business

Solheim emphasized that in order to succeed in finding lasting solutions, government and business must work closely together to reach a balance between protection and sustainable development, in the Arctic as well as in the rest of the world.

Known as a no-nonsense and articulate politician, Solheim has an ambition of untangling some of the language quirks of the U.N. world. U.N. meetings and statements are often awash in abbreviations and numbers unintelligible to most people and challenging even to seasoned diplomats. Solheim is adamant that the organization must change its ways of communicating:

“If we want more awareness and attention, the U.N. needs to speak in a way people can understand,” he said.

Norway is a leader

During his time as Norway’s minister of international development (2005–07) and minister of international development and the environment (2007–12), Solheim received praise for his global vision.

Norway’s deforestation initiative REDD, designed to curb emissions by offering poor nations financial incentives for sustainable forest management practices, won him international acclaim. He was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment,” and a “Champion of the Earth” by UNEP.

What does he think of Norway’s environment track record since he left office?

“Norway has been a leader in the field, but could do more. More of the money in the petroleum fund could be spent on investments for a better future. And cooperation with business on green development could be strengthened,” said Solheim, who compliments Norwegian politicians of all stripes on their commitment to the environment.

“There are politicians in every party in Norway who do an excellent job for the environment. Even in the (conservative) Progress Party,” said Solheim, who represented the Socialist Left Party during his tenure in Norway but has since been known to advise Norway’s Green Party.

Chances are they will all receive plenty of UNEP advice in the years to come, not least on the Arctic.

And the polar bear? He can count on a strong champion in Nairobi.

This story was originally published in High North News and is reproduced here with permission.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Arctic Deeply.

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