UN environment chief: ‘Donald Trump can’t stop the end of the oil age’

In an exclusive interview, Erik Solheim remains upbeat about the world's ability to tackle climate change and delivers a warning on Brexit

Erik Solheim, the world’s leading environment diplomat, has a message for Donald Trump: he’s not as important as he thinks he is.

“President Reagan did not start the digital economy. Nor did politicians in the UK start the industrial revolution. It was the power of business, markets, and technology which forged ahead. People dramatically overplay the importance of Trump.”

Over the course of our conversation, the head of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), sets out his worldview clearly and concisely.

The global economy is changing, the oil age is coming to an end and it’s up to global leaders to decide whether they are on board with that or not.

It’s crucial EU measures to protect the environment aren’t jeopardised by Brexit

“We are moving rapidly to a green economy. The only question is whether we are moving fast enough,” he says.

“We are way beyond a turning point and key players from the oil economy understand the need for change. I just got back from Saudi Arabia.

“There isn’t another country in the world that has benefited more from the oil economy than Saudi Arabia, but everyone I spoke to there recognised the need for change.”

The former Norwegian environment minister and centre-left politician has been the head of UNEP for a little over a year.

In that time, he’s seen his agenda hit first by Brexit and then Trump.

He speaks about the situation in Britain, urging the government to maintain strong ties with the EU on environmental issues.

“Speaking as a Norwegian, obviously I’m not going to lecture anyone on EU membership!

“The primary issue of concern is that the European Union has, over the years, built up an extremely comprehensive catalogue of environmental protection measures.

“It’s crucial that these not be jeopardised – not just for the sake of the planet, but for the sake of the British people. I also hope that the UK will continue to work closely with its European partners on advancing the goals of the Paris Agreement.

“As we can see in Europe and around the world, positive climate action is spurring innovation, jobs and growth. From a purely economic standpoint, it’s not in anybody’s interest to opt out of this.”

“They have plans to invest heavily in solar and renewables. They want a more balanced economy. They understand the technological shift of the world.”

For Solheim, Trump’s decision to take the US out of the Paris agreement is a blip. An outlier, that doesn’t change the overall trajectory of the global economy.

“Obviously, President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris agreement was a major disappointment, and I think it would have been disastrous five or ten years ago,” he explains.

“The response, however, shows that we’re in a much better place post-Paris agreement than we were, for example, after Kyoto or Copenhagen, in so far as climate action is now very broadly seen as an opportunity rather than a cost and a burden.”

A couple wade through flood waters near Katy, Texas after Hurricane Harvey. Extreme weather events have focused minds on climate change in the US. Photo: Mannie Garcia/Greenpeace

The energy revolution

His time at UNEP has also been defined by the dramatic progress of renewable energy. Across the globe, solar and wind continue to outperform projections. This summer, China made headlines after it surpassed its solar target, not just for 2017 but for 2020.

As renewables have got cheaper, coal use has tailed off dramatically.

Four years ago, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) projected that global coal use would grow by 39% by 2040. Its most recent projection puts that figure at 1%.

I’m not aware of any election around the world that has been won or lost on climate, but there have been quite a few where air pollution has been a key factor

Analysts across the world are hailing a “new energy revolution”.

All the progress on renewables was cited in a new study this week which suggested that the world stands a good chance of meeting the Paris target of limiting global warming to just 1.5 degrees.

“We can see that the whole process has taken on a new energy and a new sense of urgency. In the United States, the response from many cities and states, and also the big private sector players, has been so positive,” says Solheim.

On Monday, California governor Jerry Brown expanded his coalition of national governments and states determined to tackle climate change to cover 39% of the global economy.

“The power of states like California is huge. If California regulates emissions from cars, every carmaker will want to be in the Californian market.

“How likely is it that Ford and General Motors will make one car for California and another for Tennessee? If regulations come in California they will have an impact way beyond that state.

“The most damaging thing Trump could do is slow down the change in the US. That would mean damage to the world and damage to the US economy.

“There is no doubt that there has been a shift and if the US doesn’t go with it, they will lose out, because key markets will be taken over by China, India and others.”

Rhetoric vs reality

Speaking on a crackly Skype line from his head office in Kenya, Solheim is able to give a small insight into the current diplomatic landscape.

He insists that the public rhetoric from the leaders of emerging economies like China and India matches what they say to him behind closed doors.

“China and India are stepping up in a completely new way,” he argues.

“Ten years ago, the attitude among most politicians and civil society activists was that we need to tell the Chinese and Indians how important climate change is and convince them to change. Now it’s turned around and the change is much faster in these two nations than anywhere else.”

He credits air pollution as the main reason for the sudden urgency.

“While I’m not aware of any election around the world that has been won or lost on climate, there have been quite a few where air pollution has been a key factor.

“In India, Narendra Modi has shifted the debate. Before it was choice between protecting the environment and development. And, surprise, surprise, development would always win. Now, through the advances in renewable technology, he’s been able to incorporate development with fighting climate change.

“The dedication of President Xi and others to deal with climate change fits extremely well with their own political needs. He recognises that China is vulnerable to climate and that by fighting climate change, he can tackle air pollution.”