The Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) Erik Solheim is optimistic.
“We are living at our best moment in history,” he tells the group of diplomats, conservationists, technocrats and press people. We are gathered in a hallway, in between clean and shiny but empty offices. I note the well-polished desks, reflecting a soft evening light outside. We are at the official launch of UNEP’s Caribbean Office and the United Nations’ “UN House” in downtown Kingston. The UN Environment Programme’s current offices in the International Seabed Authority building are across the hall. Soon, all the UN offices in Jamaica will be under this roof. A little later, there is a pale blue ribbon to be cut. As United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Resident Coordinator Bruno Pouezat observes, it’s a “day to remember,” reflecting the Jamaican Government’s trust, confidence and political desire for the UN agencies to work more effectively together towards “sustainable and resilient development.”
“We’re not all going to hell,” continues Mr. Solheim, with wry humor. “Human beings have made much progress. We cannot talk about everything that is wrong.”
Now, Mr. Solheim speaks with real belief in his voice; he is, after all, an experienced peace negotiator, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Peacemakers must always look on the positive side. Mr. Solheim also has a political background; he served as Norway’s Minister of the Environment and International Development. He has been UNEP’s Executive Director since June of this year. So, he sees two sides of the environment/development coin.
With this background, Mr. Solheim clearly appreciates the Jamaican Government’s integration of the environment and climate change portfolios into the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation. “The environment is a business opportunity,” he observes. Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Ambassador Marcia Gilbert-Roberts, in earlier remarks, has already touched on the Green Economy – including the Scoping Study for Jamaica launched earlier this year. Mr. Solheim believes in a strong private sector focus and points to several examples of this, including China’s recent Green Bonds (at least US$17.4 billion issued this year).
This appears to have been Mr. Solheim’s first trip to the Caribbean. Why did he leave it so long to visit us? He describes with delight the deep blue seas and dazzlingly green islands seen from his plane window as he traveled from east to west. Yes, it is beautiful, he says – but here are three priorities for the Caribbean: Pollution, Oceans and Ecosystem Preservation.
In particular, he notes that oceans are “increasingly on the agenda,” despite not being a major focus of climate change discussions to date. However, this is likely to change. Ocean acidification, sea level rise and the impact of our warming seas on coral reefs and marine ecosystem are growing concerns. Mr. Solheim also talks about the plastic, in pieces large and small, that is filling our seas; the Trash Free Waters Project will be one undertaking of the UNEP office in the coming year.
I am struck by a comment Mr. Solheim makes about the importance of communication. The United Nations system is famous for its huge and complex range of acronyms, and its at times impenetrable jargon. We need to break this down, so that we can express really important issues in layman/woman’s terms. This is something for the UN to work on, in earnest.
Minister without Portfolio in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation Daryl Vaz stresses the strategic importance of the sub-regional office, which he points out will provide technical support to the Caribbean region in addressing their environmental issues. He acknowledges the presence of former Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Robert Pickersgill. He notes that downtown Kingston is “open for business” (by the way, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade is set to relocate in this waterfront area). I glimpse a view of the Ward Theatre through a window, like a cake with pale blue and white icing. Minister Vaz also mentions the recent deliberations on the Latin America and Caribbean Principle 10 (for transparency, inclusiveness and accountability in environmental decision-making), which I wrote about recently. He requests UNEP’s assistance with capacity-building (training) for this ongoing process, so that Jamaica, an original signatory to the Principle in Rio, can participate effectively.
I ask Mr. Solheim to expand a little on his concerns over pollution. What types of pollution was he talking about? In general, Mr. Solheim responds, air pollution is the “number one” pollution issue globally. In Jamaica too this is not an issue to be ignored; it strikes me that, with the possibility of a coal-fired power plant still hanging over us, it may become a most pressing one (I will be writing more about air pollution soon).
Economic Development, the Environment and Peace: these are the “three big global issues,” notes Mr. Solheim. We (including our politicians) must look at the big issues, he believes, not get too tangled up with the small ones. It’s a question of not seeing the wood for the trees, sometimes. We all do it, habitually.
Indeed, if we could fix these three “big ones”…what a wonderful world it would be, as the song goes.
I hope that the good people at UN House will continue to guide us towards the hope of that perfect world. Mr. Solheim will remain an optimist, I am sure.