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GLOBAL LEADERSHIP DIALOGUES Insights and Inspirations from Change Leaders

Environmental Envoy ACHIM STEINER

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Achim Steiner has served as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for the past 10 years. In fall 2016, he will be leaving UNEP to join the Oxford Martin School as its new director. Part of his legacy at the UN is the effort to reform the organization, which culminated in the 2012 UN Conference on Sustainable Development (also known as the Rio+20 conference) that strengthened UNEP. Steiner led UNEP as it evolved and implemented the outcomes of the Rio+20 conference. A particularly notable transition is the transformation to universal membership and the establishment of the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA). Steiner joined the United Nations after a series of governmental and nongovernmental posts with an extraordinary substantive and geographical range; a national of Brazil and Germany, he has lived and worked in Oman, India, Pakistan, Germany, the United States, Switzerland, and Kenya. He has received several awards, including the Tallberg Foundation’s Award for Principled Pragmatism and the Steiger Award for “commitment and important work in the protection of the planet.” He studied at the University of Oxford, the University of London, the German Development Institute in Berlin, and Harvard Business School. Maria Ivanova, director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability, interviewed Achim Steiner in September 2015 at the UN Headquarters for this issue of the Global Leadership Dialogues.

Volume 3, Issue 3

CENTER FOR GOVERNANCE AND SUSTAINABILITY JOHN W. McCORMACK GRADUATE SCHOOL OF POLICY AND GLOBAL STUDIES UNIVERSITY OF MASSACHUSETTS BOSTON www.umb.edu/cgs


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You have one of the top environmental jobs in the world, leading what I call the anchor institution for the global environment, UNEP. What was the trajectory that led you to this job? And what have been the milestones in your career?

Environment Facility (GEF) in Washington, and also for links with the UN system in New York. I then had the great opportunity to become a chief technical advisor for a Mekong River Commission project. I moved to Hanoi, but within a year my past from Washington, DC, caught up with me. The World Commission on Dams (WCD), which I had helped establish before I left Washington, struggled to identify a secretary-general acceptable to all stakeholders. A year into my work on the Mekong River Commission, I got a call from Professor Kader Asmal, who became the chair of that commission, advising me that he and the German government had “agreed” that I was being “transferred” to Cape Town to establish and lead the WCD secretariat.

I began as a development economist and development planner in the field of rural development in the mid-1980s. After my apprenticeship years in Oman and India, my first paid position was as an advisor in a rural development programme in Pakistan in what was then called the NorthWest Frontier Province, where I worked for almost three years. I saw firsthand the impact that development had on the environment, such as the degradation and depletion of natural resources, and how this was undermining the foundations of livelihoods upon which people depended.

Within a few weeks, I found myself on a plane to South Africa and was tasked with setting up the secretariat of the World Commission on Dams. It was a great challenge. In eight weeks we had to have an office, phones, and people, and get organized for the first meeting of the commission. It was a fascinating period because, through the lens of dams, one could study the full spectrum and complexity of technology choices and development impacts. A dam may look like a simple concrete structure, but its impacts affect human rights, environmental flows, energy access, redistribution of ecological assets, and so on. It was an intense but ultimately rewarding journey that culminated in Nelson Mandela’s launching the Dams and Development report in 2001.

From there, I was posted back to the headquarters of GIZ (German development organization Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit). I spent three years there with the director general’s strategic management and planning department, which gave me a very broad overview of how a complex organization operates. I launched an initiative on social security systems because I was very interested in what happens to people who fall outside of the traditional family support systems when nations do not yet have a fully functioning welfare state. I also became increasingly convinced that the link between environment and development was fundamental and decided to leave the development sector to join the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The World Conservation Strategy had recently been published, and I found myself in Harare, where I served as the program officer for IUCN’s Southern Africa Programme. IUCN’s regional director, a Zambian chief by the name of India Musokotwane became my mentor and was the first one to teach me the meaning of environmental diplomacy. He was someone who always tried to find solutions through consensus building and mediation, a strong tradition among African societies.

Just as I was finishing at the World Commission on Dams, I received another phone call, this time asking whether I would like to apply for the post of IUCN Director General.

Through the lens of dams, one could study the full spectrum and complexity of technology choices and development impacts. A dam may look like a simple concrete structure, but its impacts affect human rights, environmental flows, energy access, redistribution of ecological assets, and so on.

In 1994, I moved to Washington, DC, with IUCN, where I became their senior policy advisor and was sent into the Beltway, so to speak, to develop the first formal partnership between a conservation organization and the World Bank. This was under the leadership of IUCN Director General David McDowell, who saw the importance of building bridges between the development and environment communities. I spent the next four years as senior policy advisor responsible for IUCN’s engagements with the World Bank, regional development banks, the Global 2


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I think what we have just seen in the year 2015 with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the completion of this journey of bringing the environment from the periphery into the core of the development discourse. The environmental community has graduated from a problem-focused agenda to providing solutions. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the United Nations, what do you consider the organization’s main achievements in the environmental field? And what do we still have to do?

I threw my hat in, was interviewed, and soon thereafter found myself in the wonderful role of leading the secretariat of this extraordinary organization. The next five years gave me the opportunity to work with a group of professionals and also with thousands of volunteer experts who are the backbone of the world’s conservation community. Their knowledge and dedication were inspiring and taught me a great deal about the interface of science and policy.

I would divide the post–World War II journey into three phases. During the first 20 years, through the work of scientists like Rachel Carson and through emerging science on pollution and loss of ecosystems, among other issues, there was the realization that we have an environmental problem on this planet. This problem stemmed from industrialization and modernization, and from the pervasive lack of respect for nature. It was a reflexive phase, but it began to generate pushback, advocacy, and more science.

In early 2006, it was yet another phone call—this time from the office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan—that prompted my decision to submit my candidacy for the post of UNEP Executive Director. After the preliminary interviews, I found myself in a one-on-one interview with Kofi Annan. It was a most memorable experience, and I admit I was starstruck! Within a few days, I received the call that I should pack my bags and move to Nairobi. And here we are, 10 years later—a very dramatic and transformational period for the environment—and I am preparing for the end of my tenure at UNEP.

What followed was a period in which the world began to be influenced by empirical evidence, growing public awareness, and the emergence of an environmental movement in the political process.

The Sustainable Development Goals

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words “We the peoples…” We always have to remind ourselves of the context in which the charter was developed. That context was the ruins of the Second World War and the failure of our international institutions and political leadership to protect us from the madness of dictatorship, fascism, and total breakdown that we saw happening during that period.

A secretariat clearly must be extremely diligent, intelligent, and responsible in how it executes its role, and it must exercise responsible leadership.

The member states are the constituent assembly, and if we take governance seriously, we are bound by their decisions. But, I think Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary-General, used a deeply meaningful term when we were in the General Assembly hall with Pope Francis. He called this hall a “sacred space” and the “pulpit of the world.” The UN General Assembly is a symbol of the foundational principles that every nation—however large or small—has a voice and the right to be heard.

I think what we have just seen in the year 2015 with the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is the completion of this journey of bringing the environment from the periphery into the core of the development discourse. The environmental community has graduated from a problem-focused agenda to providing solutions.

Member states are the constituent assembly, but the UN charter begins with the words “We the peoples.” So, built into the fabric of the UN, there is an underlying tension. Who are “We the peoples”? Are they the presidents, the elected governments, or do we acknowledge that the notion of a sovereign state does not deny “the peoples” the right to be heard in the UN?

In the minds of some, the SDGs are just a set of goals. But this is a set of goals that 193 nations have adopted as a mantra for guiding development, and the environment is woven right through. Angela Cropper, our former Assistant Secretary-General and Deputy Executive Director of UNEP, envisioned our economies, societies, and environment as a triple helix—a compelling image. The environment is no longer a chronologically second-order issue. It is the foundation upon which we build development, upon which we realize either equitable or inequitable outcomes in society.

Second, the secretariat and I have always taken a view that neither the Secretary-General nor any of us who head a UN organization are here to simply be executing agencies of member-state decisions, and nothing more. The Secretary-General has an enormous role in representing the ideals and ethics of the charter. We who work in the secretariats of the funds, programmes, and specialized agencies are meant to offer member states support and advice—but also leadership, because we are in a unique

If you destroy the environment, you harm the poor. Often, this destruction is to benefit the very few. And, often, development choices in the last 50 or 60 years have been undertaken in the name of progress, but they have actually resulted in significant impoverishment. Since its establishment in 1972, UNEP, as part of the UN family, has played an increasingly central role in driving and shaping this evolving development discourse. Our most recent focus on sustainable consumption and production, green finance, is evidence of the central role the environmental dimension now plays in development policy. When we talk about the United Nations, there are two understandings. One is the collection of nations that come to New York and guide the work of the secretariat and the agencies. The other is seeing the collection of administrative units, agencies, programmes, and funds as the United Nations. What are the roles and responsibilities of these two sets of actors? Let me start off by saying that, to me, the United Nations is first and foremost the vision and the idea that found their expression in the UN charter, which begins with the

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) headquarters 4


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position to serve the community of nations which cannot be defined only through national interests alone. We have the capacity to study development, policies, and impacts all over the world. That is the second tension built into the United Nations. A secretariat clearly must be extremely diligent, intelligent, and responsible in how it executes its role, and it must exercise responsible leadership.

We need to connect the agenda of the SDGs to the people and their national context. That may sound a little prosaic, but these goals will only become a driver for integration and sustainability if they are embraced, used, and invoked. These goals must become real to people.

We are now entering a transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the Sustainable Development Goals. What can the agencies do, and how can they exercise leadership? What do we expect from the member states? We need to connect the agenda of the SDGs to the people and their national context. That may sound a little prosaic, but these goals will only become a driver for integration and sustainability if they are embraced, used, and invoked. These goals must become real to people. They must become real at local, regional, and national levels. They must become real in civil society, in business, and in parliaments, where governments can be held accountable for implementing them. And it is there, at the national level, where accountability for the SDGs mostly resides. It is there that the locus of sovereignty and international commitments coincide.

well, because there are many forces that pull us in opposite directions. We are sectorally organized, narrowly mandated, and funded in a way that discourages collaboration and synergies. It will require an extraordinary amount of effort to understand that the way we have conducted business is going to be questioned if we cannot embrace a different way of delivering on the SDGs. This is an effort that must start with the Secretary-General and the leaders of UN entities, but it goes right through to all staff members.

For us in the UN system, I think making the SDGs real is the biggest challenge in decades, and it forces us to think about the notion of “fit for purpose.” I worry about our UN family, and I believe many of my colleagues do as

UNEP and many other UN entities have been experimenting with new approaches and operating models. We are

UNEP Executive Directors Achim Steiner, Maurice Strong, Mostafa Tolba, Elizabeth Dowdeswell, and Klaus Töpfer in Glion, Switzerland 5


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At its most basic, it is enlightened self-interest. It is as simple as recognizing the fact that, as a nation, you are confronted with a phenomenon that threatens the health of your citizens, the resilience of your ecosystems, and your economy.

We cannot afford to simply add one more instrument after another. There are hundreds of modern environmental agreements by now. That inflation erodes the value of each individual agreement because people are increasingly challenged by complexity and process overload.

The United Nations provides a neutral and objective platform that can convene countries large and small, as well as polluters and victims of pollution, to broker an agreement that allows us to act on these issues. Today, we know that the environmental agenda and our ability to address environmental changes are premised upon global cooperation. The first generation of environmental agreements was praised simply for acknowledging an issue. But I think we have had a fairly hard and sometimes bitter journey of realizing that just because we signed a protocol, instrument, or convention, it does not mean that things will happen as planned. In the end, successful conventions are those that offer a value proposition that is relevant to most or all of its constituent members. That is why I think we are already beginning to see a second generation of instruments emerging that recognize that we have to redesign our governance system. We cannot afford to simply add one more instrument after another. There are hundreds of modern environmental agreements by now. That inflation erodes the value of each individual agreement because people are increasingly challenged by complexity and process overload.

trying to change and help others change the environmental damage of development. We are bound to succeed if we manage to work in partnerships. To me, this is a natural consequence of understanding that, while UNEP’s role is to keep the global environment under review, study solutions, and facilitate policy change, much of what needs to happen is not in the environmental mandate. It is actually in the mandate of ministries of agriculture, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Labor Organization (ILO), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other bodies. But, we can make extraordinary things happen. The history of the Montreal Protocol, for example, is extraordinarily inspiring to me. Over 30 years ago, scientists were talking to—and through—UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), saying to the world “Hey, New Delhi, London, we have a problem. We have a hole in the ozone layer, and here is the science to back that up.” With technology, finance, and the Montreal Protocol as a collective action mechanism, we began to repair the ozone layer. Thirty years later, it is closing again.

On the accountability front, I also maintain that we can have a soft law approach. We must reflect on what the drivers are for the evolution of the environmental governance system. I believe solutions emerge when an environmental problem is integrated with a societal and economic dimension. The Minamata Convention on Mercury is an example of that, although I regret in some respect that, in the end, we created yet another separate instrument.

Certain governments wanted to fire the Executive Director of UNEP for pushing such a protocol. The science was considered science fiction, and some believed it was too late anyway. To me, it is a beautiful story of the power of the UN, of science, and of people coming together to act in solidarity.

We have been working hard to break the tendency to have more conventions with their own secretariats, instruments, subsidiary bodies, and conferences of the parties. My hope is that one day we will actually see environmental instruments being far more integrated on an overall governance architecture. There are 100,000 chemicals. Are we going to have another 1,000 conventions to deal with different types of chemicals? We will not. One day we may move closer to a model where a United Nations Environment Assembly becomes the vehicle for a more integrated system of environmental governance.

Let us take that out a little bit further because the Montreal Protocol is part of the Vienna Convention, which is part of a whole galaxy of multilateral environmental agreements. What determines the level of implementation of these obligations that countries take? And what are the key factors that determine the effectiveness of the conventions? 6


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This is also where the SDGs play a part. They represent a critical reference point for environmental governance. They open the door to a new generation of environmental governance instruments. Hopefully, the SDGs will allow us to move beyond celebrating individual victories, one by one, in favor of a more comprehensive success.

Let me put it this way: I think Rio+20 asked the right questions but took place at a challenging time. Here was a summit that asked fundamental questions about the future development trajectory of humanity, but in a world totally absorbed in managing the financial crisis, with the beginnings of the post–Cold War peace dividend crumbling away, and tensions and geopolitical polarities reemerging.

Let us discuss the connections between academia, international institutions, and civil society. How do we further the science-policy-society interface through research and engagement?

The context was therefore difficult. But the conference reflected and articulated an increasingly obvious discomfort that was felt across the world. That is, we were badly set up to deal with a rapidly escalating set of global and, in many respects, environmental challenges.

Perhaps the best driver is empowerment. Science should not be something that makes you feel passive. Science has to be something that empowers you, that helps you understand why something is a problem, what may need to change, and how a solution can be found. I think that we need to better recognize how important it is to build up that scientific analysis.

While in no way focused singularly on strengthening UNEP, Rio became one of the vehicles to acknowledge the need for change and reform. The three or four years prior to the conference, when various meetings on environmental governance reform took place, the atmosphere was almost like of a pot boiling over. Someone was always trying to keep the lid on, but the pressure was so high that the lid was constantly coming off.

I have always been preoccupied by the fact that while science is complex, we need to ensure that it empowers people to make informed choices and understand why they need to make them. From there, we can have immense impact because people will see that they are not being pushed into doing something. The “green economy” journey that we undertook in UNEP speaks to that aspiration because it is rooted in action that is derived from the science of the global environmental changes. It is much easier to persuade a prime minister, a finance minister, or a parliament to invest in conservation if you can show that it is not just another lobbying draw on the treasury, but rather that there are immense returns for people and for communities, be they in economic, health, or qualityof-life terms.

I actually began my tenure at UNEP convinced that UNEP governance reform and universal membership would not be a member-state priority. But then something remarkable happened. Negotiations advanced. As we headed toward Rio, it was very difficult to predict what the outcome would be. The notion of strengthening and upgrading UNEP was still a doubtful signal to some but was increasingly advocated by many. In the final lead-up to Rio, we suddenly saw this extraordinary coalition building saying that it was time to move forward and that Rio+20 was the right moment to weave that in.

In a similar sense, it is also important to build science through policy capacity—particularly in developing countries. One of the tensions that we struggle with today is that much of the science capacity is still found in the North. It is mixed with perspective and interests. We need to have an empowerment where science influences public policy in all countries, and society has the capacity to have a science-policy dialogue. The Rio+20 conference in 2012 was truly a milestone for UNEP as an organization. Can you give us your personal story of going into and out of that meeting? What was the sense of trepidation, of achievement, and what has happened in the years since? Achim Steiner at the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) meeting in Nairobi, Kenya 7


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issues, and sometimes moral and political problems I have to deal with.

What UNEP gained from Rio was an extraordinary signal. As an organization, what you represent in the UN in terms of issue area is immensely important.

To accept the responsibility to lead an organization like UNEP, you need to first bring a passion for the planet but also for its people. If you have that, then you know why you are working at the fulcrum of the intergovernmental system’s environmental mandate. Second, you need to accept that you cannot dictate to people what to do. In the UN, you are most effective when you respect all positions and acknowledge differences as legitimate interests. Our leadership role in the UN as an Under-Secretary-General and CEO of a UN organization is defined by mandates on the one hand and the art of convening and facilitating parties to reach consensus on the other.

In the end, the heads of state and government signed off on the most fundamental governance reform on the environment and of UNEP in its 40-year history. I think few of us had anticipated such an outcome until the gavel came down. Some walked away from Rio thinking it was a failure for UNEP since the result did not establish a World Environment Organization (WEO). In my mind, it was not the time for a WEO, and the outcome was a transformative one for UNEP and, by extension, the environmental agenda of the future.

At the end of the day, I believe you need to embrace the logic of the SDGs. I believe the future of UNEP will depend on whether we can make apparent the relevance of UNEP to the SDGs and through them our relevance to nations and societies. To many it is already apparent, but it requires us all to rethink and refocus how we work individually, and how we work collectively within the UN system and with other partners.

What UNEP gained from Rio was an extraordinary signal. As an organization, what you represent in the UN in terms of issue area is immensely important. Calling for a strengthening of UNEP through increased regular budgets and stronger mandates, and seeing these requests enacted so rapidly (the first meeting of the United Nations Environment Assembly was in 2014), was fantastic. The true significance of this will only be measurable—maybe— in 10 years’ time. But the opportunity is palpable and remarkable for those who will be part of that journey for years to come.

From where I sit today, I am very confident that UNEP, with the backing of the current universal membership governance mandate, is poised to become one of the central anchors not just for the environmental community, but for an entire UN family, which is being called upon to address the challenge of sustainability in the context of economic and social progress.

Someone will take the baton from you in a few months. What would you advise that person who is going to have to lead UNEP into the next 5 or 10 years? What should the next UNEP leader do?

I believe the future of UNEP will depend on whether we can make apparent the relevance of UNEP to the SDGs and through them our relevance to nations and societies.

Well, I will have a closed envelope, so I will not reveal what will be in that envelope. I am often asked how to explain why I get up in the morning despite all of the setbacks, frustrations, bureaucratic

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About This Series Based on in-person interchanges, the stories told in the Global Leadership Dialogues Series offer insights into the professional work and personal experiences of notable professionals in the global governance field. The series provides in-depth perspectives on what these leaders think about key issues in global governance, what inspires them, and how they imagine the future.

Citation Information Please use the following citation for this brief: Global Leadership Dialogues, Volume 3, Issue 3: “Environmental Envoy: Achim Steiner.” 2016. Center for Governance and Sustainability, University of Massachusetts Boston.

Center for Governance and Sustainability The Center for Governance and Sustainability seeks to bring academic rigor to real-world policy challenges in environment, development, and sustainability governance. It serves as information hub, analyst, and honest broker among scholars, students, and practitioners. Opinions expressed in the Global Leadership Dialogues Series are solely those of the interviewees and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for Governance and Sustainability or the University of Massachusetts Boston. All issues are available for download at www.umb.edu/cgs/publications and www.environmentalgovernance.org/publications.

Center for Governance and Sustainability

Global Leadership Dialogues Series

Maria Ivanova, Director

Series Editor: Prof. Maria Ivanova maria.ivanova@umb.edu Managing Editor: Gabriela Bueno gabriela.bueno001@umb.edu Series Reviewer: Robert Turner A copy of this publication is available in alternative format upon request. Please go to www.ada.umb.edu.

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