If you fight local pollution, you can effectively fight climate change: Erik Solheim

In Mumbai to participate in a historic beach clean-up, UNEP chief Erik Solheim says he reposes ‘immense faith’ in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political will to aggressively push the climate agenda to the domestic audience. Speaking to The Hindu at his hotel room facing the Juhu beach, he says, “Nobody needs to send an army to New Delhi to force implement the agreement.” Excerpts from the interview:

Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, in Mumbai. Photo: Vivek Bendre

The Hindu: There is a view that India’s ratification of the Paris accord talks extensively of Yoga and Gandhi more than the actual steps needed to cut emissions: Do you also feel India’s commitment is just a ‘collection of wishes’ and not a comprehensive road-map?

Erik Solheim: First of all, of course, this is a huge positive step, especially doing it on the occasion of Gandhi’s birth anniversary is in the spirit of the Mahatma’s philosophy. Gandhi once said that change must start from within and in that sense India is being seen as the agent of change world over. The Paris Agreement is a start.

The strong encouragement I would like to give India is to see this as a business opportunity and not as a burden. This psychological change came at Paris as compared to the past when private players said climate change was expensive and difficult. In Paris, huge numbers of big companies admitted [that] this climate agreement gives them an enormous opportunity to create new green, interesting jobs in renewable energy, climate-smart agriculture, smart transport on less petrol etc.

If it takes this approach, India will move rapidly forward.

The Hindu: There is a strong sentiment here that developed countries must have greater obligation to combat climate change but that is not being pushed. How would you like to address those concerns?

Erik Solheim: No doubt the developed world has a greater responsibility to provide financial resources and technology to combat climate change. Basically, this approach is already turning things on its head. For example, Germany has taken the lead and strongest possible efforts to protect the environment and at the same time push for growth. Some of the planet’s most successful companies are based out of Germany, and yet the country has the lowest rate of unemployment and strong environment indicators. So, being firm on the environment has produced newer job opportunities in different sectors for Germany, without hampering the environment. Therefore seeing this as a stone on the feet is completely wrong; instead it has to be seen as an enormous opportunity by both developed and developing countries.

The Hindu: The Indian ratification has come with caveats: its climate pact will depend on ‘predictable and affordable access to cleaner sources of energy’. What are the legal consequences of assertions and caveats since some developed nations also threaten the same?

Erik Solheim: At the end of the day, this is about politics. We saw when the planet’s two main emitters and their presidents took the lead, China and the US, everyone followed: including India and Europe. Nobody will send a military force to push Beijing and New Delhi to implement the agreement. So this is about the political will. I am convinced Mr. Modi and other leaders like Obama have that. I am absolutely convinced these two nations and China will drive the agenda forward rapidly.

The Hindu: And you are convinced there is a strong political will in Asia?

Erik Solheim: Absolutely, China is now the main driver of this agenda, fighting climate change and pollution in the big cities of China is one process. And the same approach will be helpful in India. Since the Indian cities are the most polluted on the planet, and fighting pollution is the promise Mr. Modi has been making. ALL of this is related to the health issue, it is clear, and if you fight local pollution, you can effectively fight climate change.

The Hindu: India is walking a tight rope at home between environment conservation and the need for development. For example, there is a clamour from coastal states to relax development in areas falling under the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) norms. How does India balance this?

Erik Solheim: India can start seeing this as one process and not two, not like first do development and start doing environment. As an example, most efficient and best mining operations around the world do not have any harmful effects. So if you have the best regulations in place, there is no choice between development and environment. Both have to be done at the same time.

The Hindu: The country is facing immense challenges: degradation of Himalayas in the North, rampant iron ore mining in Goa, coal extraction in central India and water disputes in South. What can India do better to face up to these?

Erik Solheim: A few thoughts: number one, Himalayas is a life and death issue for India and must be treated as an environment and development issue at the same time. Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers flow from Himalayas, if the glaciers are melting and the water is not flowing, it puts a question mark on the livelihood of millions of people in the Ganges basin.

Number two, in every area India must look to develop science-based conflict resolution mechanisms. These must operate between, for example, nations (eight) around Himalayas or between two states within India.

India has a lot to learn from the best practices around the world, reduce conflict, and go for science-based pragmatic management of the river basins. For example, the West African states have made good water sharing mechanisms. India can learn.

A think tank in Mumbai has made a Water Management Index, which if implemented could lead to resolutions. India must have proper joint management groups, and, lastly, the more India embarks upon proper consultation with local groups, and indigenous groups around these areas, the better it will be able to do for itself.

The Hindu: What are you concerns when thinking of environment in India?

Erik Solheim: Most immediate issue facing India is the effect of environment degradation on health. Garbage is an enormous health issue, air pollution is also a health issue. These must be addressed immediately.