Q&A: UNEP chief Inger Andersen on program priorities and climate change

Inger Andersen, executive director at the United Nations Environment Programme. Photo by: Mark Garten / U.N.

NAIROBI — An existential challenge and a mass extinction: These are some of the top things on the mind of Inger Andersen in her role as executive director at the United Nations Environment Programme.

Andersen took over lead of the program in June 2019, after the former head, Erik Solheim, resigned amid criticism of excessive travel expenditures and other internal rule-breaking.

“Had we acted 10 years ago, we would have needed now to reduce every year our emissions by 3.3%, which would be doable. Because we haven’t acted, we now need to reduce our emissions by 7.6%, which is a stretch —  a massive stretch.”

— Inger Andersen, executive director, UNEP

The program provides science and policy guidance in areas such as climate change, biodiversity, and pollution. For example, each year it publishes its Emissions Gap Report that documents the global trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions against where emissions need to be to prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change.

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Devex sat down with Andersen at UNEP’s headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, to discuss the program’s focus on areas of climate change, biodiversity, pollution, and integrating nature as part of the solution to global problems.  

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is your vision for UNEP moving forward?

Climate change has to be a priority. The world has heard the U.N. secretary-general calling it the existential challenge of our time.

Secondly, we look at the way in which we're pushing against the very planetary boundaries within which we need to live. Nature provides the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, and we haven't been so kind to it. We have about 7.8 million species. If we continue at our current rate, we will lose about 1 million of them. There is a natural extinction rate that is known, but we are in the sixth mass extinction. We are hurtling toward a much greater rate of extinction — about 1,000 times the natural extinction rate, on average.

Third, pollution. We have been very innovative as a human species, in extracting things from our environment and producing absolutely critical elements with which we have modernized. But when we're done with it, we can’t discard it back into the environment. That has been done as effluent, as toxicity, as emissions, etc. We need to keep those elements in the economy. Another way of putting it is “circularity:” What we take out of the planet stays in the economy in a circular way.

Finally, understanding that nature does not have to be the enemy of development. To the contrary, working with nature — green cities, green protection, innovative investments with communities, in mangroves that protect us from high storms, coastal forests that break the wind and protect cities, sand dunes from which clear water can run, wetlands that provides water and the kidneys of our systems, and obviously our groundwater.

Is UNEP involved in negotiations at the COP-level? On climate change, what are the biggest challenges in your work?

We provide and hold up a mirror to negotiators to say this is what science tells you. And based on that science, we can tell you the reductions in emissions that we need if we want to hit this or that degree point. The latest report that we published shows that we have climate-procrastinated for quite some time.

Had we acted 10 years ago, we would have needed now to reduce every year our emissions by 3.3%, which would be doable. Because we haven’t acted, we now need to reduce our emissions by 7.6%, which is a stretch —  a massive stretch. But it's not like we have a choice.

The U.N. secretary-general has gone on record and said: If we want to hit 2 degrees [Celsius], we can't build more coal-fired power plants. Let’s stop any new coal fired power plants by 2020 and not begin to plan for new plants. It takes about seven to eight years from idea to the commissioning of a plant. Then a plant tends to have longevity of about 40 years. A plant that we plan today, we will commission seven, eight years from now. And essentially, nearly 50 years out, it is still operating, unless we decommission it.

You may have seen in newspapers recently that more and more insurance companies are no longer willing to insure coal-powered plants, because they can see that the longevity may not be as long as an investor may be looking for.

“You cannot be in this business and not be an optimist.”

Making those shifts takes leadership at the cabinet level, at the business level, and at the individual citizen level. I think that we're beginning to see that. At the Global Climate Action Summit, we had about 70 countries that made the commitment to go carbon-neutral, either by 2040 or 2050. That is very good. We need to see more of that.

Are you optimistic about the ability of the global community to come together to avoid catastrophic outcomes from climate change?

You cannot be in this business and not be an optimist. The science is so clear. We can see what needs to happen, but we have procrastinated for too long. At this point, I am seeing leadership.  

I'm seeing leadership and outcry in a number of places. There is the next generation who are saying — we don't have a seat at the table, but we are going to inherit your mess. They are calling us to account.

Environmental concerns dominate the World Economic Forum's “Global Risks” report with five of the top risks identified as environmental and for the first time, CEOs reported that biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse are what keep business leaders up at night. And so they should. The WEF’s “Nature Risk Rising” report says that about $44 trillion dollars, over half the world’s GDP, depends on nature and its services.

Businesses are beginning to understand the impact this will have on their profit margins.

How big of a barrier will the U.S. Trump administration play in deterring progress on climate change?  

Obviously, at this point, we call on all countries to stay at the table. And I'm pleased to see that all countries, except one, have remained with their commitments, and have stayed at the table.

One country has decided not to stay at the table. That's a sovereign decision. At the same time, there are 10 states in the U.S. that have committed to saying that they are still in and there are many mayors that have committed to saying they are still in. We're seeing industry in the U.S. leaning in and making adjustments. The insurance sector is realizing that the reality of climate change is something that cannot be politicized. I think that the business sector, the city sector, and the population at large, across the world, are seeing this. I am optimistic that everybody, save one, [is] still in.

Update, Feb. 19, 2020: This article has been updated to include two since-released World Economic Forum reports.

About the author

  • Sara Jerving

    Sara Jerving is a global health reporter based in Nairobi. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Vice News, and Bloomberg News, among others. Sara holds a master's degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism where she was a Lorana Sullivan fellow. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists in 2018, part of a Vice News Tonight on HBO team that received an Emmy nomination in 2018 and received the Philip Greer Memorial Award from Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2014. She has reported from over a dozen countries.