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GLOBAL LEADERSHIP DIALOGUES Insights and Inspirations from Change Leaders

September 20, 2017

Champion for Change ERIK SOLHEIM Erik Solheim became the sixth Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme after an outstanding career as environment and development minister of Norway, chief mediator in the Sri Lanka peace talks, and head of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. Solheim has been a prominent figure in Norwegian politics since the 1980s. He served as secretary and leader of the Socialist Left Party and was elected to parliament in 1989, 1993, and 1997. Solheim served as special advisor to the Norwegian foreign affairs ministry in Sri Lanka and helped negotiate a truce between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers in 2002. In 2005, he was appointed minister of international development, and in 2007, he was also appointed minister of environment and held both posts until 2012. In 2013, Solheim became head of the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), where he focused on reform of official development assistance and support to the least-developed countries. In recognition of his work on climate and the environment, Solheim has received several awards including the Champion of the Earth award. He is member of the Sustainability and Legacy Commission for the International Olympic Committee. Maria Ivanova, director of the Center for Governance and Sustainability, interviewed Erik Solheim on several occasions in 2017 at the UN Environment Programme office in Nairobi for this issue of the Global Leadership Dialogues.

Volume 4, Issue 1




You are the Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme, the anchor institution for the global environment. What was the trajectory that led you to this job?

We need to do whatever we can to assist ministers. But we also need a much broader perspective; in every nation we have to work with ministers of finance or national planning, and with foreign ministries.

I’ve been interested in environmental issues from the time I entered politics. We started, myself and other people on the left wing of politics, on some of the issues of the day that we were very interested in—for example, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the environment. When I became the leader of my party in Norway, it was a party with a political profile that was neither pro-Soviet nor pro-American, but instead advocated peace. This, however, came at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall, so obviously the party needed a complete reorientation. The idea of a so-called third-road party no longer made sense, so I had to reshape the party. We’d seen the success of the German Green Party and decided that would be our focus.

Also, I was at the end of working on the peace process in Sri Lanka, and I wanted to continue this work. So I decided that international development would be a better fit. But after two years, we had to reorganize the government, and then I got the opportunity to do both environment and development. That was a much better situation because then you have environment setting the policies and international development getting money. A lot of people said you cannot do that combination, but it worked out well.

We had the Chernobyl accident which brought the environment issue to the fore for everyone in the world. I decided to really reorient the party to be the Green Party in Norway and by and large succeeded in that. I think for 15 to 20 years I was seen by most as the environmental political leader in Norway.

Through that I came to know Achim Steiner and UN Environment as an organization. At the end of the day, I think why Ban Ki-moon chose me as executive director was because of this combination of experience in the two portfolios. He understood that you can never succeed in the environment unless it is part of the wider economic development story.

When I entered government, I was asked whether I wanted to be in international development or environment. I preferred to be in international development. The ministry of environment in Norway has no money, and I felt that I’d get into a position where I’d get all the criticism but would not have the tools to do the job.

At the national level, how do you plan to influence and encourage that merging of environment and development thinking? That is, of course, the weakness, because most environmental ministries are relatively weak, and in many nations, these are relatively new ministers. In Norway, for example, only myself and one other person had been ministers in another ministry before becoming minister of environment. This shows that environment minister is usually a first portfolio—or at least that is how it has been seen. We need to do whatever we can to assist ministers. But we also need a much broader perspective; in every nation we have to work with ministers of finance or national planning, and with foreign ministries. We need to work much more closely with all ministries; otherwise, we won’t get the resources we need. The money that the OECD nations spend on the environment is controlled by the foreign ministry, not by the minister of environment. Also, in all European Union nations, most of the money for international environmental efforts sits with the ministry of foreign

Erik Solheim participates in the largest beach cleanup in history at Versova Beach Cleanup in Mumbai, India. (c) RedBox Filmers/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 2



affairs or development agencies. You cannot achieve anything if it’s just the environment in isolation. For example, why has Prime Minister Modi of India picked up on solar energy as a policy priority? It’s because it’s good for the environment, good for job creation, and electrifying the countryside, all at the same time. It’s social, it’s environmental, and it’s economic. The organization you lead, the UN Environment Programme, was created in 1972, and was supposed to be the environmental program of the UN system. One of the first things you did as Executive Director, was to ask your staff to change their communication style and use “UN Environment” to refer to the organization rather than UNEP. What was the impetus, and what have been the impacts of that move?

People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014. (c) Stephen D. Melkisethian/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The role of the UN is to bring some clarity, bring different actors together, in a strong drive for peace.

The first thing to state is that this is not about changing our mandate, but rather about how we communicate our mission. I’ve attended numerous UN conferences where I know that if I brought in my mother or an average voter from any country, they would hardly understand a thing. Some of the language used in the environment and development world seems willfully obscure, or an entire language altogether that is packed with acronyms. Even I get emails I cannot understand, and I know that when I cannot understand the email, that is the same for all but a tiny handful of people.

for their children. In other words, we have to make the environment an issue that everybody can connect with. Our challenge is that we need to bring people on board, and to do this we need to stop talking in acronyms and speak a language that people understand.

Secondly, a huge problem for environmentalists is that they have rarely been able to make the environment a key issue in elections. Most people in all nations of the world consider the environment an important issue. But when they go to vote, they vote on the basis of every other issue. In the election campaign in the United States the environment was hardly mentioned, and if it was officially mentioned it was a partisan, negative topic. But every poll shows that a huge number of stated Trump supporters care about the environment like anyone else. They enjoy national parks. They want jobs and a healthy environment

You addressed government representatives gathered in Nairobi and started by saying that the UN is in trouble. It is 70 years old, and many argue that it was created in a different era for a different world. What needs to change for the United Nations to be better able to meet the contemporary needs and address the modern challenges? And how does UN Environment play into that? That’s a very good question. Obviously, for the first time, the UN is really challenged by important political forces. I think that has not really happened before. I mean all of us have some critics in the fringe of politics but for the first time it’s really challenged by major political forces asking what is the value, is it important, could the world do without it? And the UN must take that as a positive challenge to really respond firmly as to how the UN is relevant.

Our challenge is that we need to bring people on board, and to do this we need to stop talking in acronyms and speak a language that people understand.

The UN also started in a very different atmosphere. Its role is much bigger today. The potential is much bigger. We tend to forget that the first more than 35 years of the UN were during the Cold War where, at the end of the day, the relationship between the Soviet Union and the United 3



So, we should forget the idea that those who do well are so exceptional and instead start to discuss how we can learn from them. And the UN should be the first to provide the platform for this kind of global learning. The opening of the second UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, May 23, 2016. (c) UNEP/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

ingraining environment into development in the very early days. Ethiopia has been very successful in Africa. Rwanda has been very successful. How can we learn from that?

States defined everything. The UN was not really central in that relationship, and the direct relationship between the two superpowers was what mattered in all the conflicts all over the planet.

So, we should forget the idea that those who do well are so exceptional and instead start to discuss how we can learn from them. And the UN should be the first to provide the platform for this kind of global learning, to provide the expertise, but also the platforms for exchange, use, and practice of knowledge. No one can copy someone else, but everyone can learn from the frontrunners.

Things are very different now. For every conflict in the world today, there is also a peace team. The role of the UN is to bring some clarity, bring different actors together, in a strong drive for peace. This is why the new SecretaryGeneral Antonio Guterres has reminded us that our primary focus needs to be on the prevention of conflict.

The mandate of UN Environment is to be the leading global authority on the environment. What is necessary for the organization to be able to fulfill this mandate?

There are close to 200 states today. They all fiercely guard their independence, but they also want advice as to how to set policies right, how to develop, how to protect the environment, and so on. Hardly any institution is better placed to provide such impartial advice as to what works and what doesn’t work than the UN.

Citizen support. Because if there is no drive among people for environment decisions, politicians and business will become complacent. I think Barack Obama really answered this question when he said his two young daughters did not understand the concept of acid rain. The fact is that they didn’t understand because the problem is resolved. There is no more acid raid in the United States, but at

But of course, then we need also to ask the hard questions. How come Singapore or South Korea or China developed so fast, faster than any entity at any point in human history? What can we learn from that? Some people say we cannot learn from Singapore because it’s too small, we can’t learn from China because it’s too big, we can’t learn from South Korea because it’s too Korean. You can find any excuse why we cannot learn rather than asking the firm question, “How come?” These countries have brought hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. Both Singapore and South Korea in the 1950s, were poor; indeed, poorer than Africa. China was as poor as Africa as late as the late 1970s, and now China has really taken off. Some of them, like Singapore, have also been at the forefront of good environmental policies,

Bye Bye Plastic Bags: A social initiative driven by youth to say NO to plastic bags. (c) 4



When it comes to leadership, you must devise an overall strategy. You don’t do it alone, of course. You speak to people and have an overall strategy for what you want to achieve, or you will run north and south at the same time, which means you stand still. Secondly, it’s inspiring people. The time of the old-fashioned military-style entity where you can give orders is long gone. If you want people to work hard and to go in the same direction, you must inspire them. Thirdly, it’s about trusting people and delegating power. Because if leaders try to do everything by themselves they’ll achieve very little again, because the world is so big, there’s so much to be done, and there’s 24 hours in a day, and no one has the competence and knowledge to make all decisions. There is maybe one item within the entire area of UN Environment where I have more knowledge than most others, and that is in the relationship between the environment and peace, because I work more on the peace process than most others, but that’s the only area where I potentially have more knowledge than others. Whenever it comes to chemicals or biodiversity or climate change or whatever the issue is, there are many, many more people with more knowledge than me on everything. They should be empowered to make decisions.

UN Environment has to be a moral voice setting out the strong need for citizens to engage in the environment. the time it was seen as the number-one challenge to the environment. It was resolved because of the citizens’ movement, which I think is one of the universal recipes for environmental progress. People need to say, “We don’t want to live this way any longer. How can our children live in a nature which is gradually destroyed? Why would we need to breathe this horrible air?” Secondly, brave politicians must regulate the markets, set timelines, not demand everything happen in one day, but say tomorrow we’ll be there, the day after tomorrow there, and the next day there. Finally, we need the private sector to be engaged. This is were the money is. It’s where innovation happens. UN Environment has to be a moral voice setting out the strong need for citizens to engage in the environment because otherwise we will destroy the planet, we will have fewer jobs, and we will have less prosperity. We need to engage with business and particularly with those companies who are leading the change. Those who don’t understand the need for change should never be in doubt that they can end up like Kodak, which didn’t understand the value of digital cameras.

The time of the old-fashioned military-style entity where you can give orders is long gone. If you want people to work hard and to go in the same direction, you must inspire them.

What are your priorities as Executive Director, and what would your relationships with the various stakeholders be, governmental and nongovernmental alike?

UN Environment launches the #CleanSeas campaign in Bali, Indonesia in February 2017. (c) UNEP/Shawn Heinrichs/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 5



Also, because I believe that this an easier path to communicating on climate. Nearly everything you do to, for example, fight pollution in Delhi or Beijing is also helpful for climate and vice versa. That’s why we have, with great support from all the member states, made pollution the topic for the Environment Assembly in December 2017. Secondly, to respond to the demand from Antonio Guterres on prevention of crisis and conflict, and bring the environmental dimension into that. On this, we want to really step up on environmental security. The crises in, say, Syria and South Sudan, Somalia, many other places, have a strong environmental dimension. Thirdly, protection of wildlife and nature. Mother Earth is very beautiful, but Mother Earth needs to be much more protected and that is also at the end of the day very good for business and the economy. We have to protect nature better, otherwise we undermine the platform for economic development.

Erik Solheim speaks at World Environment Day celebrations in Canada in 2017. (c) UNEP/M.Booth/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Speaking just in the halls at the World Economic Forum, I sat next to the CEO of ABB, this huge Swiss company. It’s one of the biggest companies in Europe. I asked him the very simple question, “If you want to identify one issue, not a hundred, but one issue of leadership, what is the most important?” He said, “It is to construct a leadership group where there is a wide variety of opinions and that the other leaders are not clones of yourself, but so that there is a forum where you can discuss ideas, you can reflect upon them, and you can defeat bad ideas but get better ones. Otherwise you will fail.”

Fourthly, we have to get the big financial flows going green. Otherwise we will fail. All of these four areas are important, trying to have a business perspective and a citizen’s perspective, and work at the highest level with governments. You took on the position of Executive Director after the Sustainable Development Goals were adopted in 2015. How do you see the role of UN Environment now in the next stage, in the implementation of these goals? We have a big role in monitoring many of these goals. However, we must get the perspective right. First, the more we can work for the others, the less competition, the better. We have agreed with the World Health Organization to work together on environment and health and pollution, because we’ll be much more successful. George W. Bush coined the term coalition of the willing, which is in my view a very good term, and it was maybe abused in Iraq, but it’s a good term; you bring together those who want to move. We cannot wait for the latecomers everywhere. When we started the coalition for the protection of the rainforest, the so-called UN REDD, Reduced Emissions from Deforestation, we didn’t wait for the latecomers. We started with Brazil, Indonesia, those nations and some others who really wanted to move, and brought together companies and nations who wanted to join at a later date, and that model I think we can apply in other areas.

The biggest change in the world in my lifetime is obviously without any comparison the change which has happened in China. If you look to how Deng Xiaoping led that change, it was exactly just these three things. Number one, setting out the broad strategy for China, I mean opening up economic reform. Secondly, picking good people to be the prime minister, the secretary general of the Communist Party, all the key positions, and they had huge freedom to do what they wanted to do. Thirdly, to communicate this in a way people could understand, as for example the sentence that it doesn’t matter whether the cat is white or black as long as it catches mice. He was getting up late in the morning, as an old man, spending the evenings watching videos and films with his family. It was not that he was working very long and being into every issue, but strategy and delegation of power to people, that’s the key.

We’re now on plastic pollution and marine litter. Let’s bring together those nations who really want to drive that agenda. Let’s bring together those companies that want to move to a plastic waste-free, or a recyclable, reusable plastic economy, and drive the agenda. Because if frontrunners show the way, others will follow. That applies both

What are your priorities for UN Environment as the leading institution for the global environment? We have broadly identified four priority areas. One is pollution, including plastic pollution, air pollution, everything.




to nations and to businesses. It’s much more about this political drive than about sitting, measuring, as if we were the central committee of the world.

To constantly work on it over time. People need to see that you put your hard work where your mouth is. For example, I said from the beginning, you should be kind to each other, because people tend to work better if they’re happy with their job, and they go inspired to work every morning. If they go to work every morning with a fear of the superior, they will still go to work, but they will normally do much less. Therefore, when there have been issues where I have seen someone who I don’t think was kind to people, I’ve told them, “You need to change. This is not the way, this is not the way we want.” I am telling that leader specifically, that we need to change. When I see people coming up with good ideas, I try to spread them to as many people as possible as an inspiration to do it.

Both from your personal experience, and now as a director, what aspects of the institutional design of UN Environment, one as a program in the UN system but also the internal structure of the various divisions, work well, and which don’t? Why, and what can be improved? First, I believe that culture in an institution is nearly always more important than the exact organizational structure. In business and international institutions, there are so many examples of a new leader coming in, turning everything on its head, changing everything, and believing it will come up much better on the other end. It happens, but very often, you spend an enormous amount of energy and effort if you go into huge structural changes, and people will tend to just sit and look at their own chair. It sucks energy out of the system. There is no way of organizing that is perfect. The culture for working together across divisions is much more important than the exact way of organizing it.

What inspires you, and what keeps you up at night? What inspires me most is people who really change something. Because the great political leaders, my heroes like, say, Abraham Lincoln or Deng Xiaoping, are people who really can transform the lives of so many people. But you can see that also in much smaller entities, people who are really transforming the lives of others.

The one main change I have done is to make a differently structured executive office, where I have four special assistants focusing on four different parts of the world. One from Rwanda, one from Norway, one from Japan, and one from China, with the aim of making it much easier to link up to the ambassadors, to the governments, and to our regional offices and to everyone. For instance, the person working with China, East Asia, she’s from China, making communication to everyone there very easy. So I get their input, and they get to hear my views. Of course, then working in a similar way with all the divisions. There is some fear of this, because people are afraid that it will be a filter, but it is exactly the opposite—make it a way for the top leadership to be closer to everyone.

It can be anyone from a soccer team coach to a teacher. People who really transform the world. I believe whenever you see positive development, you can nearly always identify the people behind it if you look more firmly, because every positive move is run by people who decide to do something better or differently, that’s the most inspiring. hat would you say to young people today who want W to launch successful careers in the environmental field? What would your words of advice be? You can change the world. In the past, the world was changed by young people who stood up for ideas. Barack Obama became president of the United States because of young people. In the 1960s, young people, most of them in their early 20s, picked a fight for civil rights in the United States. I mean Martin Luther King was the old man of the movement. He was in his late 20s; the others were around 20. Slavery was seen as normal by humans for thousands of years. Then some people said, “How come? Is this really normal?” and they completely changed, turned it around. The same for the modern movements of feminism or environmental progress, you can always identify the people who started picking the fights—writing, mobilizing people, speaking to their friends and neighbors.

I have put my program on the intranet so that everyone can know what I’m doing. I told everyone they are free to write me emails. They should communicate directly. There are many issues I cannot resolve. I get complaints from staff who are not happy with their superior. I cannot really go into all of this, but I can at least notify people and ask some people to do something. If I get ideas, I cannot immediately put them into action, but I can share them with those most relevant too, so they can look into it. We need more ideas, more debate, more different views.

Just a recent example, a young lawyer in Mumbai looked out to the beaches and saw enormous, enormous plastic pollution. And he said, “We cannot live like that any longer.” He was completely alone and then he started speaking to

You mentioned the other day that the change of culture starts from the top. What is your plan on changing the culture, or effecting a culture shift? 7

You can change the world. In the past, the world was changed by young people who stood up for ideas.

his neighbor, who was 85, and the two of them decided, “We need to do something.” And from that onward, they created a movement of thousands of people cleaning the beaches. In Bali, two young girls, 14 and 16, started a nomore-plastic movement, cleaning beaches, and through that, putting pressure on the government and the politicians to act. There is endless ability for young people to change the world; just get started.

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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 experiences of notable professionals in the global governance field. The series provides in-depth perspectives on what these leaders think about key issues, what inspires them, and how they imagine the future.

Citation Information Please use the following citation for this brief: Global Leadership Dialogues, Volume 4, Issue 1: “Champion for Change: Erik Solheim.” 2017. 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 or the university. All issues are available for download at and

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Global Leadership Dialogues Vol. 4 Issue 1  
Global Leadership Dialogues Vol. 4 Issue 1