Sunday, 17 January 2021

UN in your language

Interview with Janez Potočnik

Janez Potocnik EC webInternal Voices magazine interviews Janez Potočnik, European Commissioner for Environment.

What are your expectations and hopes looking towards the Rio+20 conference?
I have been somewhat dismayed at the lack of progress as the conference approaches. The EU has been fully engaged and will remain so, but the last New York discussions did not bring a breakthrough, and further efforts will be needed in Rio. This is why we are calling for a strong engagement by all parties and notably the host country, which will have a vital role in securing a success for the Conference.  Without that the chances of success in Rio will be limited.

There will be no added value for the Summit if we get entangled in procedures or just good intentions. We need to wake up to the reality of the situation facing the world and to take concrete steps to deal with it. Sustainable development and an inclusive green economy have a massive potential to turn the environmental challenges into economic opportunities and to reduce social inequities. But to go from potential to reality we need direction and tangible milestones.

Let's grab this opportunity to choose the kind of future we want – while we still can.  

How has the EU prepared for the conference?
As you can imagine, we have been preparing for several years already, both in the Commission and in the Member States. This has been a big advantage in getting our ideas noticed – so the "Zero Draft" contained a lot of our ideas. We set out from the basic premise that sustainable development has a number of overarching objectives on an equal footing, and that they need to be tackled together. I mean eradicating poverty, changing unsustainable patterns of consumption and production, and protecting and managing the natural resource base, all of which form the backdrop to our calls for a greener global economy.  We've stuck to that line, and I don't have any plans to change…

Other main themes at the conference are the introduction of a green economy in the context of sustainable development, poverty eradication, decent jobs etc. Is this perhaps unrealistic in the times of crisis?
When people are concerned about their jobs and their livelihood, they are naturally less receptive to calls to change their behaviour from an environmental point of view. But it is the responsibility of policymakers to remind everyone – citizens and businesses – that making the changes that are good for the environment are often changes that are good for the economy too.

A green growth strategy offers the opportunity to turn sufficient amounts of financial capital into entrepreneurial investment for a sustainable future.
Green growth strategies – and low carbon action generally – based on rules, regulations and a credible institutional set-up, aim at increasing resource efficiency and help to reduce emissions. But they also contribute to job creation, and increased innovation, as well as stimulating (foreign) investment and providing access to new markets.

A lot of focus has been on the environment in connection with Rio + 20 as it is, but less about social issues and development. Is Rio + 20 first and foremost an environmental conference?
It's a big mistake to pretend that the environment is independent of everything else. It's an integral part of everything else. And you can say the same about a "green" economy. It won't be truly green until is results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. Growth in a green economy is driven by investments that reduce pressures on the environment and the services it provides us, while enhancing energy and resource efficiency.

How big of a role do you think the private sector will play in achieving goals on sustainable development?
A key role. Business has the potential to make the green economy and sustainable development a reality. So we need to encourage business to engage, and make the most of the opportunities. Business has also a lot of practical and tangible opportunities by getting involved in the greener and more sustainable activities and ways of doing business.

We can't wait for governments alone to take the initiative. There are so many ways that being sustainable means being ahead of the game on the market and there are numerous ways in which businesses can practical steps in this direction.

One of the main decisions will be on "the institutional framework for sustainable development." What is your view on this issue?
If we managed to get a really ambitious outcome, with agreement on increasing the productivity of sustainable agriculture around the world, for example, or on improving water efficiency, we would still need to be able to monitor progress towards those goals. That's why the EU has argued for the need to upgrade the international framework for sustainable development. I would like to see UNEP transformed into a specialized Agency, based in Nairobi, to serve as a stronger platform that can set the global environment agenda. This would mean a stronger mandate and universal membership – putting the world on a faster track to change. That's my view. But I'm not making any predictions.