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Science has spoken, we must keep our foot on the environmental pedal

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Science has spoken, we must keep our foot on the environmental pedal

— UNEP Deputy Executive Director Joyce Msuya
Zipporah Musau
From Africa Renewal: 
5 June 2021
UNEP Deputy Executive Director Joyce Msuya
UNEP Deputy Executive Director Joyce Msuya.

Joyce Msuya is the UN Environment Programme’s Deputy Executive Director. She spoke with Africa Renewal’s Zipporah Musau about how to green the African Continental Free Trade Area, the environmental impacts of COVID-19 and what gives her hope in the fight against climate change.

What is this year’s World Environment Day (5 June) all about?

This year’s World Environment Day focuses on restoration, and launches the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Restoration is a core part of our new strategy, and we're delighted that the launch is at the right time leading up to both the Conference of the Parties (COPs) - the COP 26 on Climate Change to be held [this November] in Glasgow, UK, and the Biodiversity COP to be held in China this October and which will set out the post-2020 biodiversity framework. Because as we know, biodiversity and climate change are two sides of the same coin.

You held the 5th Session of the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA-5) earlier this year. What are some of the outcomes you are most proud of?

Firstly, member states decided that, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting should be split into two parts. The first part held 22-23 February focused on administrative issues. The second part, to be held in February 2022, will focus on substantive issues, including resolutions.

I’m pleased with UNEA-5 for several reasons. One: it was the first major international environmental meeting to be held in a virtual setting, using all the six UN official languages online and attended by all our 193 member states, as well as other stakeholders and partners. That was a milestone achievement. So, in many ways, we set the pace for 2021.

Secondly, member states adopted our new medium-term strategy. For UNEP to be operational, we needed the 2022-2025 strategy to be endorsed. Member states also adopted the budget, as well as the programme of work on the thematic areas that we will focus on.

We have an opportunity to look at decoupling from fossil fuels, and to advance the net carbon zero agenda and use more sustainable sources of energy
Joyce Msuya
UNEP Deputy Executive Director

The other success, if you look at 2021, is that there are a number of COPs, and UNEA-5 enabled member states to deliberate on substantive inputs for these meetings.

From a regional perspective, it was very inspiring to see the African ministers of environment come together and bring Africa to UNEA. There were many regional consultation meetings that took place to feed into UNEA, and therefore UNEA in many ways symbolized the best of multilateralism beginning in 2021, focusing on environment.

It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic started. How has it affected the environment?

First and foremost, the humanitarian aspect of the pandemic is real. From the environment side, what UNEP, as a normative scientific organization, did was to try and understand the link between COVID-19 and environment. So, we published a zoonotic study report together with partners such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), and the World Health Organization (WHO). The initial findings seem to suggest that, and this builds on the science from other viruses such as SARS and Ebola, that environmental degradation, the damage that we do to the planet, can cause mutations in viruses.

Then, because many people are working from home and not flying or traveling as much as they used to, and many cars are not on the road, we are seeing in many parts of the world a reduction in pollution. For example, the villagers at the border of Kenya and Tanzania say they can now see Mt. Kilimanjaro much clearer than before. 

The other impact is the disruption of supply chains. If you look at the agricultural sector, which is dominant in Africa, the ability to move food supplies has been disrupted, which also means food prices have gone up for majority of people.

As UNEP, we are engaging heavily with different governments, trying to advocate for green stimulus packages as countries rebuild and recover their economies. As the UN Secretary-General has mentioned, how can we build back better? Do we have opportunities, for example, to create green jobs as part of the investments that are going into economic recovery, or to build more sustainable infrastructure, for example, in the health sector system? 

All in all, COVID-19 lockdowns have had a mixed and diverse impact - from humanitarian, to emissions, but also creating opportunity to build back our economies better in a more sustainable way.

A recent report by UNEP and the University of Oxford titled “Are We Building Back Better?” found that recovery spending had fallen short of countries’ commitments to build back more sustainably and that only 2.5% of total spending can be considered ‘green’ and that green spending is currently driven by only a few high-income nations. What seems to be the problem?

My answer is it is too early to say. But overall, global green recovery spending has been disproportionate with the scale of the planetary crisis. If you look at the spending that is being put forward, it's a lot of money. However, the spending that has gone into solving the three planetary crises - climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution - is still minimal. Governments are channeling resources into the pandemic’s humanitarian response or rebuilding their health infrastructure. But we are optimistic. The European Union, for example, has put in place green recovery packages.

When it comes to banning the use of single-use plastic bags, Africa leads in that regard. There are more than a dozen African countries that have either banned, or have legislation, or are in the process of finalizing legislation on banning single use plastic bags.
Joyce Msuya
UNEP Deputy Executive Director

How is UNEP helping countries to recover sustainably?

Here at UNEP, at the onset of the pandemic last year, we came together as the senior leadership team and developed COVID-19 responses focusing on a few areas. First, to advocate for green stimulus packages. Second, to understand the science behind the virus so we can help inform governments -we issued the report that I referred to earlier on zoonotic studies. Third was on waste and pollution. For example, the South African government came to us and asked for very specific technical expertise on waste management, particularly medical waste, in some of the poorest areas in the country, as well as in big cities.

Locally, since UNEP is headquartered in Kenya, we donated Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), and supplies - from sanitizers to soaps - to some of the informal settlements because there is a segment of the population that could not afford them, and the risks of spreading the virus was high.

We've also been advocating for green jobs. We're seeing, for example, that some of the recovery investments going into rebuilding resilient health infrastructure could also offer opportunities to use sustainable materials and create greener jobs. In Africa, we have also supported the 54 countries to put together an Africa green stimulus programme.

Trading under the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) started this January. How can we balance industrialization needed to lift millions of Africans out of poverty with protecting our environment?

When you read most of the development plans of African countries, as well as the African Development Bank, there is a deep desire to scale up development through industrialization, which is great. We are seeing, for example, in places like Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya and South Africa how the industrialization agenda is growing. Coupled with an emerging and growing middle class, which consumes more, there is an opportunity for expansion of trade, and the AfCFTA is a good and timely initiative.

But that carries its own risk: how do we work as part of the AfCFTA to promote sustainable production and consumption? There is evidence from other parts of the world, and from here in Africa, that unsustainable production can lead to environmental degradation. For example, using fossil fuels to make products for trade can lead to pollution and affect the health of human beings. So, we have an opportunity to look at decoupling from fossil fuels, and to advance the net carbon zero agenda and use more sustainable sources of energy. Also, Africa is well endowed with solar, so there is an opportunity to look at solar investments to drive the industrialization agenda.

We have a programme on trade and environment where we're working with the World Trade Organization (WTO), to embed the environmental principles upfront as part of the negotiations. And we're very excited that now Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala has moved to WTO [as the Director-General], we can scale it up.  

We're also working closely with African Union (AU) member states as part of their national policy objectives that are linked to environment, and we have a programme with the AU’s Commissioner for Environment to push environmental advocacy in the trade agreement.

On the data front, our Africa department is working with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA), looking at the data between trade and environment as Africa continues to industrialize.

As people begin trading across borders under the AfCFTA, how can they green this process?

I'll give you a very specific example, which I think has the potential to be scaled up. I’ll start with a sub-regional trade bloc, and then I'll come to the AfCFTA.

In the East African Community, one of the first countries to ban the use of single use plastic bags was Kenya. Across the borders there is a lot of trade between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, etc. Most of the food, including fruits and other food stuffs, that are sold in Kenya come from small traders along the borders. What was interesting to see was how Kenya’s policy banning single use plastic started changing the behavior of small traders across the borders. Why? Because there is a fine if you use a plastic bag, whether you're bringing produce from Tanzania, Uganda or elsewhere. That promoted and advocated a very organic management of plastic pollution, including along Lake Victoria, for example.

Coming back to the AfCFTA, there are opportunities if we can partner, for example, with the AU, UNECA, Africa Development Bank, and others and embed some of the sustainable trade practices around sources of energy, for example, that could be good. But these are difficult choices because there are transitional costs.

—Joyce Msuya, United Nations Environment Programme’s Deputy Executive Director
We recognize that member states, after the pandemic, will be focusing on recovering and stabilizing their economies and creating jobs. So, the challenge is to not relieve pressure off the environmental pedal, so we can move forward and faster because the science has spoken.
Joyce Msuya
UNEP Deputy Executive Director

The second example is around sustainable consumption and production across the globe. Even small traders can start questioning the choices they make - what should they buy and not buy? Traditional African food, for example, is actually very healthy. But, as we move into processed food, there are negative environmental dimensions. So how can we play the role of advocating for sustainable trade based on some of the very core traditions of African societies?

What, in your opinion, would you say are the three most pressing environmental challenges Africa is facing today, and how they can be mitigated?

Due to the ongoing pandemic and its impact on countries, I would say, broadly speaking, one of the challenges is lack of resources for environmental protection due to other competing and pressing priorities, such as job losses, the disruption of society, and the debt crisis.

Two, is the short duration of the recovery phase. As we have seen across Africa, there have been job losses because of the lockdowns; human capital losses, including well-educated environment technical experts who have been lost because of the pandemic. So, there is pressure for the recovery to be very, very short, at a time when the financial resources are scarce.

Third, is what I would call making deliberate choices. If you look at the follow-up of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, Africa as a continent, and African countries, have played a leadership role in developing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). Looking at 2021, we have COP 26 and there are calls for more ambitious targets on climate change, the question becomes one of balance. How can African governments deliver very quickly, building on what they've done on NDCs, and at the same time deal with domestic pressure? But what gives me hope is the political will, and we've seen this in NDCs. For example, when it comes to banning the use of single-use plastic bags, Africa leads in that regard. There are more than a dozen African countries that have either banned, or have legislation, or are in the process of finalizing legislation on banning single use plastic bags. 

You spoke about the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. January marked the start of the implementation, yet, current climate action and financing have fallen short. What gives you hope, then, that we can meet the challenge of climate change? Where in Africa, do you see good examples that can be replicated?

I am an eternal impatient optimist by nature. When you work in development and environment, one has to be optimistic. So, what gives me hope, especially in Africa, is the following: First, the political will and leadership. This existed pre-COVID-19, including during the Paris Agreement and it is demonstrated by the fact that over 70 per cent of the NDCs prioritize actions in two of Africa's most pressing and important sectors - clean energy and sustainable agriculture. The granularity of the planning and the determination that African governments have come up with following the Agreement, gives me hope.

Second, most African governments now have adaptation plans as part of their broader development plans. Now, plans are good, but action is better, and that's where I think we are seeing varying degrees of implementation. Looking at the financial crisis, there will have to be some tough choices to be made. But I'm still optimistic because of the political will and the leadership that Africans have demonstrated, and I see this often with AMCEN (the African Ministerial Conference of Ministers of Environment).

Third, is the youth. We work very closely with stakeholders, including youth groups, indigenous groups, women groups, etc. The youth absolutely give me hope, the community leaders as well.  We are seeing, for example, communities taking leadership in cleaning up beaches along part of the East African coast, including a campaign called “Flip Flop” here in Kenya, using traditional Arab small boats to sail along the coast to raise awareness about plastic pollution. Why? Because the fishermen and women noticed that most of the fish had plastic in them, and they were concerned about its impact on human health, as well as their livelihood. So, they took it upon themselves to advocate for keeping the beaches and water bodies clean.

Lastly, as you know, UNEP is headquartered in Nairobi, it is the only UN entity, together with UN Habitat, headquartered in the Global South. We focus on environment and we are constantly reminded not only of the environmental challenges that African countries and rest of the world face, but also, as the saying goes, charity starts at home. So, we have to ask, what can we do with AMCEN? What can we do with our host country, the government of Kenya, to make a difference?

Are there such examples in other countries?

I would say Rwanda, where they are using technology in the agricultural sector, especially drones, to reduce the usage of water.

We're also working closely on environment and security in the Sahel region. We know from data that conflict is caused by limited fertile land. So, together with other UN entities, such as the UN Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) we are working on a Sahel programme with the AU to try and address the issues of environment and desertification.

It is more than three and a half years now since you joined UNEP, eight months of which you were the acting Executive Director. What would you say are your top three achievements and what challenges have you faced so far?

For me, the biggest accomplishment, and I am a part of a bigger team, is the humbling experience to be able to serve UNEP at the time when I joined. About two year ago, UNEP was in crisis, and as an African and as an African woman, to come to UNEP at that particular moment, and join a team and play a role in stabilizing the organization and moving it forward is an experience that I will never forget, and I'm very deeply grateful for. The expectations from member states, African governments and from across the globe were great. The advocacy around environmental challenges was massive, and the organization needed some fine-tuning to deliver what the world was expecting us to do. And I'm very grateful and proud of the team, and what we've managed to do.

Two, I am proud of the renewed confidence in UNEP among member states, including donors, demonstrated by their political commitments. From the time I came in 2018, I have overseen two UNEAs - one in March 2019 and the second one, which was virtual, in February 2021. Both were very special, unique, and big in their own ways and demonstrate that there is a strong belief in UNEP, and in the UN multilateral family. I'm excited to have been a part of the new medium-term strategy, the programme of work and the budget, that our Member States adopted in February, basically to give us even a higher and sharper mandate focusing on results starting 2022.

UNEP will be turning 50 next year, in 2022. It is a time of reflection, but also of aspiring to even greater heights. So being a part of this journey is a nice and humbling experience. So, if you talk about the Decade of Action, and how are we contributing and supporting member states, not only to achieve the environmental mandate, but also the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it's a fantastic professional journey that I'm very grateful to have taken.

What are the challenges you have faced so far?

I think the challenges are related to delivering very quickly. We recognize that member states, after the pandemic, will be focusing on recovering and stabilizing their economies and creating jobs. So, the challenge is to not relieve pressure off the environmental pedal, so we can move forward and faster because the science has spoken. Time is running out; the world’s climate is warming up at an unprecedented level. So, keeping up with that pace, while also being realistic is extremely important. But I'm hopeful because we're not only engaging with environment ministers, but also helping them to engage with their counterparts, for example, the planning, finance, and trade ministries, so environment becomes a development agenda.

Two, is meeting the challenge of the SDGs. The UN Secretary-General has talked about the Decade of Action, and we are now hardly 10 years away from 2030. However, I am optimistic because in our new strategy, we have tried to sharpen our focus on three planetary crises - climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution – all of which are absolutely relevant in Africa. I feel we have the right strategy to help us deliver, and member states and donors are investing in us in terms of supporting us politically, financially, and otherwise.

The next one is how do we bring everybody in the UN system to help deliver because the environment agenda is everybody's agenda. It's an exciting time.