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Climate Change Justice

International Diplomat Erik Solheim on Politics, Climate Change, Much-Needed UN Reform and Trump

Politician and diplomat Erik Solheim argues that developed countries should bear responsibility for the environmental damage they cause. Talking about the Loss and Damage Fund, which is critical to bringing climate justice to communities in the developing world, he says it’s important that it become unbureaucratic and focus on climate adaptation.

Erik Solheim, politician and diplomat, believes that climate action is simply overdue. Credit: Erik Solheim

Erik Solheim, politician and diplomat, believes that climate action is simply overdue. Credit: Erik Solheim

OSLO, May 20 2024 (IPS) - Erik Solheim, a senior internationally renowned politician and diplomat, has long been an advocate for combining development assistance with private investment and better taxation systems in recipient countries. 

He has argued that linking international agreements to global taxes, or quotas, combined with private investments in renewable resources would effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To gain further insight into the relationship between politics and climate change, IPS columnist Jan Lundius spoke with Solheim.

Solheim served in the Norwegian government from 2005 to 2012 as Minister of International Development; he also took on responsibility for the Ministry of Environment in 2007 and held both offices until 2012. He later chaired the OECD Development Assistance Committee and served for two years as Under-Secretary of the United Nations and Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP). He has also been one of the most recognizable figures in peace negotiations in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Sudan, and Myanmar.

IPS: We know that for most of your life, you have been engaged with environmental issues. Please share with us what you consider to be the greatest threats to the environment and humankind’s existence.

Solheim: We are facing a triple environmental crisis. Climate change triggered by fossil fuel burning is a very grave threat, as is the general pollution of our habitat. The ongoing degradation of our nature leads to an increasing and irreversible annihilation of plants and animals. All this does not bode well for the future and coming generations. This development takes a mounting economic toll, including on the farming sector, a prerequisite for human survival. We are facing a huge global environmental crisis, remedied by far too limited and insufficient measures. Action is simply overdue.

IPS: Another global UN climate change conference, COP29, will be held in November in Baku, Azerbaijan. Are these meetings close to achieving climate change goals?

Solheim: The climate meetings are generally a disappointment because they focus on issues of limited significance and are run on the basis of small wins or losses for diplomatic actors. Let’s focus less on the negotiations and more on the fact that these global summits bring together politicians, business, and civil society from all corners of the globe. They highlight the state of affairs of current research, raise awareness, and give an opportunity to showcase success stories and inspire action. However, it’s the political economy that matters most.

IPS: Is there still any hope whatsoever of stopping an obviously catastrophic environmental destruction?

Solheim: Contrary to many others, I am very optimistic. In most countries, business is far ahead of political decisions. What matters are the decisions made by the most influential political leaders in the world, not the negotiations. Ten years ago, the West was leading the world in the green transformation. Now Asia, countries like China, India, and Indonesia have moved to the front seats. This is because the price of solar power has fallen 90 percent and the price of wind nearly as much. This means that a new development path is possible. There is no longer a choice between economy and ecology. We can create more jobs and prosperity by going green. Asian leaders have understood this. That’s why China now stands for 60 percent of all green technologies in the world, while India is investing massively in solar energy and Indonesia has brought deforestation down to zero. A merger of green policies, economic considerations, and a renewable revolution will supercharge the change.

IPS: As you know very well, after months of intense and contentious negotiations, on day one of COP28, countries set the Loss and Damage Fund in motion and agreed on details, such as selecting the World Bank as host of the Fund. Several countries followed by pledging about USD 700 million. The US pledged USD 17.5 million. The work is far from done. In the lead-up to COP29, countries will be looking for confirmation that the World Bank can meet the conditions required to host the Loss and Damage Fund. How do you see this evolving from a political perspective?

Solheim: A critical issue in climate talks that will take center stage in Baku is the Loss and Damage Fund. This is a critical and just demand from developing countries. To date, the US has emitted 25 times as much per capita as India. The difference is even bigger if we compare it to Africa. It’s very clear that the developed nations should take responsibility for compensating for the damage we have caused.

It’s important that the fund becomes an unbureaucratic and effective mechanism and that it focuses on climate adaptation, which is mainly a government responsibility everywhere. Flood protection or fighting drought and extreme weather cannot be done by the private sector.

Climate mitigation, however, is a huge business opportunity. Solar, wind, and hydro are now cheaper than fossil fuels. We should tap into the scaling and innovation of the private sector for climate mitigation. Governments and development banks can help with blended finance and risk alleviation for investments in the war-torn and most dysfunctional states where risk is high.

IPS: What do your experiences as a Norwegian Minister of the Environment tell you about difficulties in implementing measures amending environmental degradation and climate change?

Solheim: Norway struggles to get out of its addiction to oil. The big shame is that Norway is not using its Sovereign Wealth Fund for green investment. This Oil Fund is the biggest fund in the world, in the range of 150 billion USD. Even if a small percentage of this fund were invested in green endeavors, this would make a huge global difference. It would also help Norway disperse its risks and other funds would follow suit.

Lately, the war in Ukraine has more than tripled oil prices, something that Norway, as an oil-producing country, has benefited from. When this happened, there was in Norway a tangible but, in the long run, harmful feeling of relief among business and political leaders. They felt they could cling to oil for a few more years and didn’t need to take drastic action. This is a very dangerous long-term strategy, as it will slow down the necessary change and hit Norwegian competitiveness in the green economy of the future.

However, in a few other areas, Norway has done well. We have the highest number of electric cars per capita anywhere in the world. Ninety percent of all new cars sold in Norway are electric. We are also global leaders in electric ferries. Norway initiated the global system to protect the world’s rain forests, the most pristine and important of all our magnificent ecosystems.

IPS: Do you think the Nordic countries can make a difference in the global effort on climate change?

Solheim: In the global context, they are all small countries and hardly any longer in the front seat when it comes to lowering the global threat of climate change. However, the countries are technically advanced and have, in some areas, an important and influential role, like Denmark on wind energy, Sweden on biomass, and Norway on electric cars. The Nordic countries should aim at using our research, business, and political power to drive the necessary green transformation.

Nevertheless, the initiative now rests with Asia. In the Indian state of Gujarat, the Adani Group is constructing a combined solar and wind farm. Its 30 gigawatts are at the same level as all hydropower production in a hydro-advanced nation like Norway. In Indonesia, the paper and pulp giant RGE is protecting a huge rain forest and does not harm virgin rainforests with its massive paper business. Last year, China invested 900 billion USD in renewable energy. That’s nearly double the entire, massively oil-fed Norwegian economy. The Nordic nations need to get up early in the morning if they wish to compete and not leave all green industries to China.

IPS: Apart from being an influential Norwegian politician, you have also been diplomatically active, both as a diplomat and as a high-ranking UN official. How do you consider the UN’s role when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change?

Solheim: The UN is absolutely needed as a global platform for common action, as an organizer of joint endeavors, and as a forum for international negotiations, providing guidelines and regulations for international cooperation. However, the UN is at the moment very weak, suffering from an antiquated structure and decreasing importance.

The UN must adapt to a world that has completely changed since its establishment in 1945. To take one example, the Security Council reflects a bygone reality. In those days, Great Britain was an empire spanning the globe; now it is an island in the Atlantic. India, however, has 1,4 billion inhabitants, 25 times the British population. Furthermore, India will soon be the world’s third-largest economy and a fast-rising political power. Obviously, India should have a permanent seat at the Security Council, not the UK. The EU should represent Europe, and a continent like Africa should also have a seat. The UN is very poorly led and has a culture focused on processes and not on results. Furthermore, it suffers from reflecting the global power situation in 1945, not in 2025—not to speak of 2050. Indonesia is the fourth-biggest nation in the world and will, by 2050, be the fourth-biggest economy. In the UN, you can hardly find an Indonesian national. We desperately need a strong UN, fit for purpose in the 21st century.

IPS: How and why did you engage in environmental politics and what made you choose environmental politics instead of scientific research?

Solheim: From an early age, I learned to appreciate the beauty and openness of Norwegian nature, our mountains and fjords, hiking, and skiing. This love for nature has followed me throughout my life. I also had a desire to make a difference and was fascinated by politics from an early age. Like many others of my age, I was upset by the war in Vietnam, the unnecessary American war that killed 3 million people for all the wrong reasons. It’s enjoyable to see that Vietnam has risen from the ashes and is now one of the world’s most successful nations. I found politics to be challenging and interesting, with noise, action, and the ability to have an influence.

IPS: Talking about politics, what do you think of Trump’s chances of winning the presidential elections, the war in Ukraine and how these events might influence European cohesion and environmental policies?

Solheim: Half a year is a very long time in politics, but Trump is now the favorite to win in November. Four years ago, Biden carried, with a narrow margin, key swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. However, Trump is now in an even better position.

Trump’s climate policies make no sense. He will slow down American climate action, thereby hurting the American people both economically and environmentally. China will take over nearly all green production. How much global impact a conceivable Trump presidency will have has yet to be seen. Regardless of what happens in the White House, American business is likely to continue to pursue green objectives. Neither China, India, Europe, nor any other major economy is likely to follow him into climate denial.

One positive effect could be that Europe moves away from being the tail of the US, taking a new, more independent direction, and adopting a policy adapted to what President Macron has called “strategic autonomy.” If economic collaboration, research, and climate mitigation are maintained and further developed within the EU, it will gain increased importance as a global force.

Concerning the war in Ukraine, it is obviously unacceptable that a sovereign nation be invaded and destroyed. During the years and decades before the Russian invasion, NATO made all the mistakes in the book, but that cannot serve as an excuse for war and blatant land grabs. The war is a disaster for Russia and Ukraine, and it distracts world leaders from pressing issues related to the environment, climate, and economy. It’s time for peace talks; the sooner, the better.

The world is facing huge challenges related to economic recovery, environmental and climatological dangers, and, not least, the wars in Ukraine, Gaza, Sudan, and other places. If we work together—China and India, Europe and America, as well as all other stakeholders—there is no limit to the progress we can achieve. We need to fight the forces that wish to split us and unite in common action.

Note: This feature is published with the support of Open Society Foundations.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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