Climate-Denying Politicians, Pollution and a Note on Optimism: A Chat with Joyce Msuya, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme

The science on climate change is settled. Anyone who tells you otherwise is peddling false promises, and they are doomed to disappoint,” told us Tanzanian microbiologist and environmental scientist Joyce Msuya. It could not be put more clearly.

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Anne-Sophie Garrigou

In March 2018, Ms. Msuya became Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, which work with governments, the private sector, the civil society and with other UN entities and international organisations across the world to provide leadership and encourage partnership in caring for the environment. In November 2018, following the resignation of Mr. Erik Solheim, UN Environment Executive Director, Ms. Msuya was appointed Acting Executive Director of the UN agency.

Joyce Msuya brings more than 20 years of extensive experience in the field of international development, international finance and partnerships. During our conversation, we talked about the emergency nature of the situation and the utmost importance for governments and the private sector to act now towards environmental issues.

Hello Ms. Msuya and thank you so much for accepting our invitation. First, I’m curious: where does your interest for the environment come from?

My roots are from the flanks of Mt Kilimanjaro. My family and the people around me were intimately connected with nature — both the wildlife and the landscapes. I feel at home in the environmental community, because the environment has always been such a fundamental part of who I am!

You have 20 years of extensive experience working in the field of international development, international finance, strategy, operations, knowledge management and partnerships. You have worked in Africa, Latin America and Asia. What do you think your experience will bring to UNEP?

There are lot of strong similarities with my work at the World Bank — mainly in that we have to look at ways in which we can best serve nations around the world. I think the key challenge for UN Environment is to ensure its mandate starts to make a big impact in the world of finance. The foundations of that change are there, but I’d like to try to speed up the process of making those connections and really helping the environment cause move the markets in a big way.

“Change will accelerate when policymakers begin to grasp the economic dividends of a low carbon economy.”

What would you say are the main missions of UNEP?

We’re fundamentally a science-policy organisation, in that we develop and collate the science and data in order to inform policymakers. We’re a convening power, so we seek to facilitate discussion and action on global environmental issues. And we also have a advocacy mandate, where we see to empower and drive action from civil society and the private sector too.

Pollution has reached a level which is unbearable to humanity. In fact, pollution already kills more than nine million people every year — that’s roughly one in six deaths worldwide. What does the UNEP recommend to tackle this issue?

We need action from governments, the right policies need to be in place to protect populations from pollution. Of course, these policies need to be driven by science — and fortunately there are immediately available and low-cost air quality and other monitoring solutions that we’ve worked on developing and deploying. These can tell us the precise source of the pollution and empower action.

We need action from the private sector, because most — if not all — pollution can be solved by innovation. And we need individual action too. Ordinary people can make a difference, and should not be told otherwise. They can exercise power as voters, as consumers and in many other ways.

More than two billion people have been affected by disasters and conflicts since 2000. Could you introduce us to the nature-based disaster risk reduction?

It’s really just a rather complicated way of telling us that nature protects us! That can be mangroves or coral reefs that protect low-lying areas from hurricanes and tidal surges, or forests that protect villages from landslides and floods.

The key here is that in seeking to protect people from the impacts of disasters and the risk of conflict, we have to look at also protecting our environment or restoring our environment.

“Environmental rights are perhaps the most basic, fundamental rights.”

Governments and other stakeholders have every information at hand today to take action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (2030). Yet, many countries are not developing robust environmental policies. What do you think is missing? Why is this taking so long?

I think that in too many places environmental action is seen as incompatible with economic growth, which means the push to protect the environment takes second place. On the positive side we are starting to see an embracing of the green economy — something where environmentally friendly solutions are also driving growth. One example of this is the incredibly fast growth of renewable energy in the past few years — for example solar in China, India, Chile and many parts of Africa, and wind power in Europe. Change will accelerate when policymakers begin to grasp the economic dividends of a low carbon economy.

What do you make of climate-deniers governments?

The science on climate change is settled. Anyone who tells you otherwise is peddling false promises, and they are doomed to disappoint.

Brazil is the most dangerous place for land defenders to live, and 2017 was the worst year on record for environmental defenders, with the majority of killings, attacks and threats centred around the Amazon. Many activists are targeted for defending their communities against illegal logging and the expansion of cattle ranches and agriculture like soy, palm oil and eucalyptus. Could you introduce us to UNEP work to tackle this issue?

Environmental rights are perhaps the most basic, fundamental rights. Things like access to clean air and clean water are fundamental to life itself. Those who take a stand for people and planet should not pay with their lives, but regrettably, as you point out, the situation is alarming.

At UN Environment, it’s our responsibility to stand on the right side of history. That means we stand with defenders and civil society groups engaged in protecting the environment, and also engage governments on boosting legal protections.

What are the UNEP main recommendations for countries to develop national plans to cut greenhouse gas emissions?

Look for the quick wins. This could be on energy efficiency, promoting cleaner transport, ending fossil fuel subsidies or investing more in renewables. Policy makers also need to harness the data to see where positive climate action can also be the most profitable for their economy. For example, tackling urban air pollution require climate-friendly policies, but it also cuts the public healthcare burden.

Women play a critical role in sustaining communities and managing natural resources, but their contributions are often undervalued and neglected. Women are also more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and other environmental hazards, especially in developing countries. How does UNEP’s work contribute to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women in the environmental sector?

I’m convinced that a stronger role for women is central to accelerating climate action, and at UN Environment we seek to anchor gender balance in every part of our programme of work, just as we do in our own organisation.

What would you say are today’s most important emerging issues for the global environment?

Climate change is obviously the biggest, most immediate threat. But we also need to focus on the natural world and biodiversity protection, and numerous types of pollution. The big challenge really is around the world’s projected population growth, and how we plan to feed and house nine billion people without totally draining global resources. That requires we up our game on energy, urban planning, agricultural efficiency and environmental protection.

How optimistic are you about our success to minimise the scale and impact of climate change?

We understand the problem, we have the solutions, and we have a strong moral and business case for action. I’m therefore optimistic that more and more people will really see that there are no more excuses.

“The science on climate change is settled. Anyone who tells you otherwise is peddling false promises, and they are doomed to disappoint.”

To learn more about UNEP’s work, visit www.unep.org.


This interview was featured in The Beam #8, subscribe to The Beam for more.

Interview by Anne-Sophie Garrigou, Editor-in-Chief of The Beam magazine.

This article is also available to view on our Medium page.