UNEP Chief Inger Andersen Says it’s Easy to Forget all the Environmental Progress Made Over the Past 50 Years. Climate Change Is Another Matter

“We have to ensure that that which we leave is a comparable value or better than how we receive it,” she says. “It is so simple, yet people get so conflicted around this.”

Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)gives an interview at the UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi on Feb. 22, 2022 Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) gives an interview at the UNEP Headquarters in Nairobi on Feb. 22, 2022 Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images

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The United Nations Environment Program turns 50 this year amid a “triple planetary crisis” of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution. At the helm of the Nairobi-based organization is Inger Andersen, a Danish economist who doesn’t mince words when describing the state of the world’s environment, calling it a “code red for humanity.”

During her first three years as executive director, Andersen helped broker a landmark agreement between nations that will result in a legally binding treaty by 2024 to end plastic pollution from “source to sea”—the biggest international environmental treaty since the Paris Agreement, she says. Andersen also oversees UNEP’s vast portfolio of programs aimed at improving environmental rule of law, from supporting scientific programs like IPBES (also known as the IPCC for biodiversity) that inform policymakers, to overseeing the implementation of environmental treaties, helping the U.N.’s 193 member countries enforce environmental protection laws and ensuring the environment is on the agenda across all U.N. agencies.


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Andersen sat down with Inside Climate News last week to talk about her work at UNEP and other international environmental issues including ecocide, natural capital and the responsibilities of high-polluting, wealthy countries.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

UNEP’s 50th anniversary is this year, with 1972 being widely considered as the birth of the international environmental movement. Looking back over the past 50 years, what grade would you give humanity in its management of shared environmental problems?

Andersen: You know, I mean, looking back 50 years it’s very easy to either become despondent or to become self congratulatory, right? We shouldn’t fall into either category. I think today, obviously, for good reason. The emphasis is on climate. And so, we forget, we forget that during these 50 years, there are so many toxins that are not available and usable today. We forget that we’ve taken lead out of petrol, we forget that we have dealt with what was in the early and late ‘70s, the biggest problem—the hole in the sky, the hole in the ozone layer—you know, we forget that we actually got multilateral action on this. We forget that we have regulated how we trade legally, and how we list illegal trade in wildlife, both fauna and flora. We forget that we have moved to protect migratory species routes as they transgress boundaries. And I could go on and on and on. So there’s a lot we have forgotten. Does that mean we have done it? No. Does it mean that we’ve done well enough? No. Look at the BRS, the Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions that deal with chemicals, which were by the way in 1972, the big thing that led to the environmental movement, because we had, you know, bubbling rivers and acid rain and all of these things that we didn’t understand. And now we have regulatory issues around our emissions at the national level. So a lot of work has been done. Do we get a passing grade? I always dodge that question for good reasons. Because no, we’re never done. Human ingenuity wants to keep inventing new things without looking at what it does to the environment. And so the work of the proactive environmental movement is never done. But right now on climate, no, we absolutely do not get a passing grade. Obviously. Ditto on biodiversity, but on some of these other issues we do and that’s important not to forget all together.

There has been stalled progress on issues like climate change. Many legal scholars say there are limits to international cooperation on these issues—these problems are technically complex, change rapidly, are uncertain, directly affect national policy and impact national sovereignty.  Do you agree with that assessment, or is it possible to transcend some or all of those obstacles?

Andersen: You know, I mean, sort of the short answer is we have no choice but to transcend them. And so that’s of course not directly answering your question. But it is putting it squarely on the global agenda and this is not a bullet you can dodge. It’s coming your way if we don’t take action so transcending them will take an informed dialogue amongst and between interests, and that is what the COP has offered up as a platform. But clearly, in some member states, national interest or economic interest or short termism has overridden what was the longer term interest of the whole by this shorter term interest of a few. And, this is not easy. We have to understand that making a transition from one type of an economy, a fossil fuel economy, to a new economy is not simple. And it’s not just a legal issue. It’s an economic issue. It’s a job issue. And people vote often with the economy in mind, and it becomes a highly politicized issue. Politicians are voted in for four years or whatever it is, and this is a longer than four years issue. So there are all these sorts of tensions and pulling the tension cords in two different directions. 

But if we think about some of the things we have transcended that took real political leadership in other spaces, where we have agreed on certain issues, whether it be around arms control or whether it be around other aspects pertaining to how we manage an international order. We have Interpol that tells us that this person is a rogue here. I mean, there are ways that we’ve found to transcend national jurisdiction with legal instruments where we yield a little sovereignty, yes. But in doing so, we also create security of the whole. Of course, why has it taken 27 years? We are now heading to COP 27—actually 28 years since we missed a year—so why has it taken so long? Of course because of economic interests, because of short termism, because of political convenience. And because we’re not seeing the G-20 countries actually lean in. They are responsible for more than 80 percent of emissions. Yes, we can transcend but, it will take true political leadership, especially in the G-20 countries.

Traditionally international environmental law and policy making has been forward-looking and non-adversarial. It’s aimed to improve the effectiveness of laws, rather than looking backwards and assigning blame. But, a key part of the Paris Agreement deals with differentiated responsibilities and capabilities of developing and industrialized nations. Wealthy nations haven’t delivered on their financial commitments. Do you see a pathway forward to resolving this issue?

Andersen: First of all, I think yes, obviously, these agreements should be forward looking, but there’s always a little bit of a rearview mirror. Especially in environmental law. When it comes to pollution law, in many countries the polluter pays principle is enshrined in some way, shape or form in national environmental legislation. You can’t get away with polluting your rivers or whatever and not think that there would be consequences to the company doing so. 

That is not something that you can do in the climate conversation because what we are saying is there is a cost to what is happening and that cost is borne by us all, but often not adequately shared. And often the very poorest, whether they are living in a wealthy country or in a poor country, are the ones that end up paying the price. They are the ones that get flooded. They are the ones who live in the floodplain. And obviously at the global level, the very poorest countries suffer the most. 

We agreed back in 2009 in Copenhagen at COP 15, that by 2020, there should be $100 billion on the table and then we iterated that in COP 21 in 2015 in the Paris accord. We’re still not there now. $100 billion is absolutely the floor because everything we invest in needs to be climate-smart. We need to move towards decarbonization, but there is a cost associated with that. 

I often mention that South Sudan has something like 7.2 percent access to modern energy, yet sits on hydrocarbon resources. Chad has 11 percent access to modern energy. Yet, is a gas producer. What is our answer to these two countries? We’re going to tell them not to exploit their hydrocarbons, yes. But then we have to show them alternatives and solidarity in terms of financing to ensure that they can reach for what you and I have in terms of food and energy access. That is the equity dimension that needs to be reflected in the understanding that those who already have some of these services such as energy access, and a degree of wealth, need to support these countries to enable them to reach development objectives that are completely reasonable. 

Earlier this year at the Stockholm +50 conference you mentioned that you see concepts like “ecocide” making their way into the U.N. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has endorsed the campaign to make ecocide an international crime. Do you see conversations about an international ecocide crime growing at the U.N. level?

Andersen: Not yet, but I think it’s growing around the U.N. We see some beginning conversations of ecocide around the International Criminal Court. We saw it in Olof Palme’s statement at the Stockholm Conference in 1972 where he referenced Vietnam, and the herbicide bombing. He used the word ecocide. I think that’s the first time you’ve seen it used by a head of state and at a U.N. summit. That was a major, major thing. 

Now of course, folks active in this space feel that this is a term whose time has come and who wish to see egregious, unlawful, wanton acts against nature recognized as ecocide. But that is the Rome Statute dimension under the ICC, and not something that we can arrive at by resolution. 

But I’m intrigued by the fact that this conversation arrived inside a U.N. space at Stockholm +50. It is a word that has such a heavy load because of genocide. So it is not a word that one can use lightly. It is a word that needs definitions so that it has proper weight on what it is and what it intends to convey. But it’s certainly something that is intriguing that it’s now being discussed. 

At his opening speech here in Nairobi, Norway’s minister of the environment quoted Olof Palme and spoke about the limits of what our environment can tolerate and the perils of ecocide. So, there is some interesting discussion around this. 

As with all these things, they don’t land instantly in the U.N. lexicon but I believe that sooner or later, as I said in one interview, it will walk its way into the U.N. vocabulary. When, how, I don’t know. It’s interesting that some countries have the equivalent, I’m told. Guatemala has apparently passed a law against ecocide and created environmental courts to hear such claims. I’m speaking to you from Kenya. I understand that ecocide’s a conversation piece here. And I also know that France has announced the creation of an ecocide crime. And the European Union has had a conversation about it in their biodiversity strategy and whether they should make an effort to push for an ecocide crime inside the Rome Statute. 

I think that it is a word that is so loaded and so important and conveys something so critical. It is really good that we are having a global conversation around this and I hope that that conversation will not die down, but that it will continue and that we will get wiser around this word and eventually find a way to define the term so it can be used appropriately within the proper places in the U.N.

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You’re an economist. It seems as though the idea of natural capital—or valuing nature’s services (beyond its intrinsic value)—is becoming more and more mainstream. As the recent IPBES report put it, “The way nature is valued in political and economic decisions is both a key driver of the global biodiversity crisis and a vital opportunity to address it.” Can you talk about the benefits of natural capital, and why that concept is controversial among some environmentalists?

Andersen: Well, first of all, and this may be to recognize my Indigenous brothers and sisters and local communities, because nature has intrinsic value. It has a value in and of itself before we do anything else, we need to just recognize that. It is the basis of faith systems. It is the basis of our history of art, of our self understanding, all of other things. It’s important to just state that. Even as a person who may not be of that community, I think you and I recognize that nature, just a walk in nature, taking our kids into nature, there is value that doesn’t have to have a dollar value. It just has value. The other creatures, beyond you and me, have value even without you and me appreciating them. And I think that’s just sort of important to state and I think environmental law needs to recognize that. 

But kids breathing in clean air also has value in society because they don’t get asthma and they don’t have to go to the hospital. And so a community having clean water means that we don’t get cancerous diseases. The trees by just being there and cooling my city means that the city is more livable. Or the reeds through which the water passes acting as a natural filter and absorbing the silt so clean water emerges in the end for me to drink has value. 

And it’s understanding that natural capital is the value that nature gives us as a gift. Nature pollinates our crops, which means that I don’t have to have mechanical pollination, which is so dreadfully expensive. And that value is a value that society doesn’t properly appreciate and does not integrate into their understanding of the wealth of a nation. 

So the wealth of the nation is its labor capital, its infrastructure capital, and of course, its financial capital, But not natural capital. And you go really, how can that be when I can make a profit by cutting the forest down, and then my country is wealthier. That doesn’t make any sense. So I think where economists have gone wrong is that they haven’t understood this other piece. 

It is critical to recognize the services that nature gives us. Without them, we are poorer. In UNEP, we speak about inclusive wealth. And understanding wealth and understanding nature as an asset class. If a country has seen GDP growth, but its asset class of nature has completely declined, in the long run, that country will not do well—unless it can exploit other countries to get what it needs, which obviously is not going to work. 

I think that if we can change the way we describe GDP, and add the natural wealth of nations on top of that as an element in which we describe our wealth, we will have a better understanding of what it is we’re leaving to the next generation. We have to ensure that that which we leave is a comparable value or better than how we receive it. It is so simple, yet people get so conflicted around this.  

There was a time when we polluted our way to wealth. When we exploited our way to wealth. When we occupied other countries to get wealthy, we thought that we would clean up later. But that’s not an option anymore. We have to make sure that we understand the wealth of our ecosystems and the contributions that they have toward us. And we should make sure that companies are held to account not just for their profit and loss statements but for their impact on nature because that should be the true value of the company, not just the quarterly profit. 

Later this month there will be a vote in the U.N. General Assembly on the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. Why is it important to recognize this right and do you think framing the issue in “rights” language, as opposed to keeping it as a policy matter, is important? 

Andersen: I think it’s absolutely part and parcel of the same story. How can we have human rights if it is not a healthy, clean and sustainable environment? 

That takes away from me the ability, frankly, to live in some cases. I think that for Indigenous people and local communities who are often the first environmental defenders but also those taking the hardest hit in terms of murders of environmental defenders, this right will not immediately guarantee these rights. But, it gives a recognition that no you may not go in and extract or pollute in contradiction of the right to a healthy, clean and sustainable environment. 

I think it is critical that that is recognized. I was very happy to see it recognized in October of last year at the Human Rights Council and where we from UNEP have done a lot to support our U.N. colleagues in Geneva by providing all the environmental dimensions to it. 

Human rights and environmental rule of law as we speak about it at UNEP is bridging something here: the human experience and the lived human life. And that becomes, I think, very, very critical. So yes, I’m very optimistic about what’s going to happen and very much hope that we will see this resolution pass, and that it will inspire states who have not yet recognized and constitutionalize that right, because that’s actually what you want. You don’t just want some right at the U.N., you want to feel it in your life. And we are already working with a number of states to support them as they explore what they can do in this regard. 

Looking ahead to COP 27 (taking place from November 7-18 in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt), what are your hopes for that conference?

Andersen: It’s hard to continue to find the words that are strong enough in this regard. The U.N. Secretary General speaks about this as an existential crisis. This is an emergency. This is code red for humanity. It is. 

UNEP comes out with the Emissions Gap Report each year where we say this is what you promised and this is where we are, this is the projected gap. Last year, UNEP also supported what we call a production gap report that shows this is what you say, and this for 15 countries or so, is what you’re predicting in terms of oil and gas and coal exploration and you know, there was a massive gap between them. 

So what we need to see is obviously delivery on the many pledges and promises that were made in Glasgow, that is absolutely clear. And for countries that have yet to send their enhanced [Nationally Determined Contributions], they have to deliver them. At Glasgow some additional pledges came in from countries to reduce their emissions, and there was a lot of hullabaloo around those additional pledges, but they didn’t actually take us anywhere—it was only about a half percent more. 

So my concern is, of course, with the Ukraine energy related dimension, countries will not lean in to gear shift toward renewable and sustainable energy, but lean back toward reliance on hydrocarbons. That is a big concern and that is where the big wealthy economies, the G-20, will have to lean in, especially those that have a long historical carbon trail. 

Countries also need to show solidarity to the countries that are yet to get 100 percent access to energy. It’s so important. We have said it so many times, and yet it hasn’t happened. Then of course, because it is Africa’s COP, because it is on the African continent, there will be a significant emphasis on resilience, adaptation, ecosystem-based adaptation, nature-based solutions and investments in these kinds of issues. Investments in the blue-side of the story as well as the terrestrial. 

I think the primary thing is that the G-20 has to step up and make significant reductions in emissions.

If you could ask for one thing from world leaders and you get it, what would that be?

Andersen: Can I have three?


Andersen: ​​So the first thing is from the time we agree on something to the time we do it has to be shortened. As a science-based organization, we can’t be continuing to just, with ever greater precision, tell the world what’s happening. So shorten the time between us signing an agreement, and us actually taking the action that we knew on day one that we needed to do. 

Number two, we need to ensure that we move on climate. Climate is so critical and everyone knows what needs to happen. And without it, frankly, we’re not going to be the world that we can be and the future is very, very dire. 

My third one would have to be understanding that the planet is not this inexhaustible place, but that it too has limits to what it can give us, and therefore finding a way of living in harmony with nature. Yes, we need to feed 8 billion people. But we can do that without this massive waste and this massive cost on the environment. Unless we understand the cost of treating the environment like both our service provider and our garbage dump, we’re not going to get to where we want to be.