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Ex-UN Environment chief leaves behind lasting legacy

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UN Under-Secretary-General Erik Solheim

Globe-trotting former UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim, who will be known for his contributions to moving agendas on marine, plastic and air pollution, as also climate change and ozone depletion, during his short 28-month stint, was a votary of India and China, the world’s fastest-growing economies…reports Asian Lite News

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UN Under-Secretary-General Erik Solheim

The former Norwegian diplomat, politician and environment minister played a crucial role this year in convincing India to phase out single-use plastics by 2022, a major achievement in his crusade against plastic pollution.

He’s stepping down as Executive Director of the UN Environment with effect from November 22, the departure coming amidst an expenses row. A draft internal audit, obtained by Britain’s Guardian newspaper and seen by the BBC, said he had incurred costs of $488,518 while travelling for 529 out of the 668 days he was in office.

Of his commitment to the environment there was never any doubt.

“The global warming train is now on track, but it must speed up. It’s urgent.” This was his spontaneous reply at every interaction with this IANS correspondent at any global climate summit.

Even as he quit, Solheim took the opportunity to talk about India.

“From the historic announcement made by Indian Prime Minister Modi to phase out single-use plastics, the ever-growing list of countries ratifying the Kigali Amendment, the largest-ever gathering of leaders on pollution at the Third Environment Assembly (December 2017), our incredible partnerships on nature-based farming in countries like Indonesia and India,” he said in his farewell statement.

“We have supported so many other great efforts including the Minamata Convention, the European Union platform on single-plastics and so many innovative partnerships with the private sector,” Solheim said.

Born in 1955, besides the UN Environment assignment, the former Norwegian minister contributed to a number of peace and reconciliation efforts, most notably as the chief negotiator of the peace process in Sri Lanka.

He has also received several awards for his work on the climate and environment, including UNEP’s “Champion of the Earth” award.

This green politician, who believes he was inspired by the life and thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi in the global fight against climate change, played a crucial role in the phase-out of the heat-trapping organic compounds — hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) — and replacing them with climate-friendly alternatives.

“I am so glad! This is such a victory for Mother Earth. Up to half a degree of global warming is avoided and thus less droughts, cyclones and destruction of our beautiful planet,” was his first reaction after the amendment to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was endorsed in the Rwandan capital Kigali in October 2016.

The amendment is the single-largest contribution the world has made towards keeping the rise of global temperature to “well below” two degrees Celsius, a target agreed upon at the Paris climate conference in 2015.

Curbing plastic pollution was one of his topmost agendas.

“Plastic pollution is one of the biggest environmental threats the planet is facing right now,” Solheim emphasised in one of his recent interviews with IANS.

“We’re throwing up to 13 million tonnes of plastic waste into the oceans each year, and in the next decade that could double. We’re turning the oceans into a plastic soup,” he had said.

He believed that tackling smog needed decisive leadership. There’s no magic solution to the smog problem in the Indian capital as it’s caused by a variety of factors, Solheim has said, adding: “The key here is providing clear, decisive leadership on the issue.”

It’s the same in New Delhi, Manchester, London, Beijing or Nairobi. Citizens and politicians have to breathe the same air. It’s possible to build a strong consensus for action to opt for low-carbon solutions.

For him plastic straws just one example of the curse on nature.

“We also have pointless packaging, pointless plastic bags and huge quantities of other products that are used for minutes or seconds and that we can easily live without,” Solheim told IANS recently.

At a function here to confer the “Champions of Earth” award of the UN Environment on October 3, Solheim said the most important raw material in the world today is political direction.

In a farewell tweet, Solheim said: “I am sad to be leaving @UNEnvironment as we have achieved so much together. I will continue to champion the cause of the environment!”