“Health is wealth.” We absolutely need political and industrial leaders around the world to understand that the damage that we inflict on our natural resources, is damage that we inflict on ourselves and our children. There is no escaping the fact that poverty, inequity, loss of biodiversity and environmental damage are inextricably linked. Without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy economy; no social development. And there can be no healthy environment or natural resources, without the migratory species that tie together life on this planet from the sea, on the land and in the air.
So, the same determined policy planning and public-private collaboration being turned to the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, must also be turned to the species that underpin every element of it. To paraphrase Secretary-General António Guterres: this is a test for multilateralism that the world cannot afford to fail.
A big part of the test will be our ability to move towards a pollution free planet. Such pollution impairs the use of the environment for work and recreation. It threatens the cultural, spiritual and aesthetic values that reflect the richness and diversity of life on earth.
There are many reasons behind it. From the choice of technology when making large investments or shifting industrial processes, to consumer habits and the design of buildings and products. And the way we dispose of waste when we’ve finished with our water, plastic, chemicals and other items.
But when you consider that a fraction of the 130,000 chemicals on the market are properly tested or controlled. That we create 10 billion tonnes of urban waste and 50 million tonnes of electronic waste every year. Then it is easy to see how the impact of such choices can be worsened by a lack of legal regulations, enforcement or knowledge.
There is a direct link between municipal waste and national incomes, with the poorest in society at the wrong end of that equation. About 50 of the biggest dumpsites already affect 64 million people and countless species, with a toxic soup of dangerous gases, heavy metals and hazardous waste. The amount of dumping doubled since 1970 and is growing steadily.
Whatever the root cause or growth trends of pollution, it is very quietly killing us by infiltrating everything we eat, drink and breathe. It is very steadily destroying the species, genetic diversity, natural resources and ecosystem services - the very foundations on which we build our society, economy and security. So, the challenge is how to keep improving people’s standard of living, while reducing rather than increasing related pollution. Protecting rather than destroying species and natural resources.
It can be done. All forms of pollution are as preventable as they are reversible - if governments, companies and individual citizens join forces. For too long, prosperity and environment were considered a trade-off. Waste and pollution were seen as imposing costs and curbing growth, instead of being embraced as natural opportunities for profit and prosperity. Not anymore!
Look at the impact of failing to supply basic waste and water management. If the long-term cost to migrating species and ecosystems needs to be better understood. The short-term devastation is painfully clear.
Plastic is incredibly useful, increasing demand 20-fold in the last 50 years. But our taste for single-use plastic is unacceptable and our handling often irresponsible. Up to13 million tonnes of plastic and 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is dumped in the ocean every year. That’s like every football fan watching a match in the Philippines Sports Stadium throwing in nearly 2 tonnes - every day for a year. And then doing it year after year. The dramatic images of huge swathes of it ending up on beaches, fishing nets and coral reefs barely scratch the surface of the problem. Because just a tiny amount of five trillion bits of plastic in our oceans float on top.
Stories of whales dying because of a stomach full of plastic bags still make the headlines. But the turtles, seabirds, seals and 600 other species affected do not. Yet infection, suffocation, cut or lost flippers and blocked digestive systems. They all cause suffering and death that is conveniently out of sight of the people responsible. As that plastic breaks down into even smaller pieces and is joined by other microplastics from cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. It not only makes its way down the food chain to fish and mollusks, but it then goes right back up the food chain and onto the dinner plates of the people responsible.
Yet, pollution is a choice. Our choice. We can just as easily choose to turn it into an opportunity. Instead of pumping untreated wastewater into the sea around coral reefs, why not nurture these incredible natural structures that can be worth over $1 million a year in tourist areas? Instead of spending more money to produce new packing, why not recover the $120 billion of materials that end up in the sea each year?
It is a similar story for lead: which we used widely, before realising there is no safe exposure level for humans or for wildlife. It can damage the brain, nervous and reproductive systems, and it causes kidney disease, cancer, high blood pressure and memory problems.
There has been a massive effort to remove it from water pipes and gasoline. But only 62 countries have legal controls on paint and we continue to sprinkle it liberally around the countryside, contaminating land, waterways, wildlife and the food chain. Lead is still widely used in hunting and fishing activities. In Europe and the US, even when hunters miss their target, millions of animals die from ingesting spent lead shot and fragments or other animals contaminated with lead ammunition.
In North Dakota, Dr. William Cornatzer is a keen hunter, but he was horrified by the x-ray of a deer that been shot in the chest. The entire carcass peppered with tiny lead shot fragments. He suddenly realised what he had been feeding to his family. So, he checked venison given to foodbanks by hunters: 60% had lead fragments. A health warning was issued to stop pregnant women and young children eating such meat. Though, of course, there isn’t much you can do to stop frogs, mice, swans, eagles, deer or bears eating it. As those fragments make their way into migrating species and wild animals, there is even less you can do to stop that destruction reaching further than ever intended.
But again, as with plastic, the solutions need to be embraced as an economic opportunity, not dismissed as an inconvenience. Why throw away $1trillion per year by exposing children to lead paint, when you could protect future staff and customers and still make money from safer alternatives? Why continue to make lead shot, when there is money to be made in being the first to come up with a cost-effective alternative before legislation forces the issues? Such a change in mindset is not an easy, but I think good progress is being made and much more can be done.
In the same way hunting kills millions of birds and animals that were never in the line of fire, pesticides and rodenticides kill many more species than they were targeting. Whether they are eating foliage, seeds, insects, rodents or scavengers, the damage can quickly spread across habitats, borders and species, with help from migrating species and waterways that travel overland to the sea.
Some high-risk insecticides have been removed or restricted. But, as I mentioned, there are 130,000 uncontrolled chemicals on the market. So, as one dangerous product disappears, it’s easy for something worse to take its place. With all of it reaching the food chain and family dinner tables.
Yet again, there are incredible opportunities to adopt solutions that are as profitable for business as they are for the environment. For example, that chemicals market is already worth over $5 trillion per year and demand is expected to triple in the next 30 years. So, we don’t have to investing and reinvesting to redevelop and relaunch alternatives each time new legislation is introduced and enforced. Market leaders who identify and roll out more natural products, which they know are safe for wildlife and for people, have a huge opportunity.
Of course, pollution is not a new phenomenon. Nor is action to counter it. The Stockholm, Basel & Rotterdam Conventions are phasing out many banned pesticides and chemicals. The Minamata Convention is tackling mercury.
What is new, is a window of opportunity to accelerate and scale up that action. To turn a threat to our existence into a source of health, wealth and wellbeing. Incredible advances in science and technology allow us to better understand the problems, monitor progress and develop solutions. Growing demand and action from individual citizens and consumers are paving the way for new policies and products. New markets for growth and being snapped up by businesses and investors. And governments are leveraging all of this, to not only deliver benefits for their own people, but to deliver unprecedented progress through international cooperation.
So, the big question is - can we realize the incredible appetite for change that we have seen emerge with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development? I believe we can, if we leverage innovation and competition to intensify and accelerate these trends around the world.
At December’s Assembly, we will focus on five practical steps to achieve that. First, encouraging political leadership and partnerships, through a global compact on pollution to ensure high level engagement from both the public and private sectors. Second, strengthening policies and governance through risk assessments, enhanced legislation, multilateral agreements, and other measures; Third, adapting our lifestyles and economies to embrace sustainable consumption and production, resource efficiency and waste management. Fourth, mobilizing finance, investment and innovation in low-carbon and clean opportunities to better understand, manage and counter pollution. Fifth, advocating for action. Citizens need to be informed and inspired to reduce their own pollution footprint and advocate for bold pollution-beating commitments from the public and private sectors.
These steps recognise that we cannot fail to realize either the size of the challenge ahead. Or our ability to put some of the most significant social, economic and environmental developments in a generation within our grasp. Especially if we can pull more people out of poverty by investing in the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, and by ensuring the benefits from that are equitably shared, while preserving integrity of our environment.
We need action to protect marine species, ecosystems and biodiversity. Believe me, the world will be watching to see if we deliver. To see if we can make the case for greater investment in science based policies and institutional capacity, and to see if we can convince political, industrial and civil leaders to take some bold decisions and then build on them through the UN Environment Assembly, the UN Decade for Biodiversity and the 2030 Agenda.
By Ibrahim Thiaw
UN Deputy Executive Director.