Inger Andersen is closing in on her first year as executive director of the United Nations Environment Program just as the Covid-19 crisis upends her agency’s work while also underscoring its critical need. “Never before have the mandate, mission and objectives of UNEP been more in focus,” she said in a recent interview, adding, “I am very enthusiastic and energized.”
Andersen, a Danish economist and longtime champion of biodiversity, took charge of the UN’s top environmental post only months after an airplane crash in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March 2019 killed dozens of UN staff members and environmentalists en route to the UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, UNEP’s home base. The pandemic is now forcing the postponement of several UN-led initiatives, including a global biodiversity conference that was to be held in China.
Despite setbacks, Andersen hopes the world will emerge from the crisis with a new priority: “Keeping wildlife wild.”
“This is one of the lessons that we need to take out of this dreadful, dreadful disease,” she said. “When you mix live species that do not usually live in the same habitat in artificial settings such as markets, or with general encroachment into natural habitats where wild species live, this is where we do at times see these exotic diseases.”
Secretary-General António Guterres has ordered the entire UN family to mobilize against the virus. For UNEP staffers, who are currently telecommuting to 44 field offices worldwide, this means soliciting contributions to the Covid-19 response fund from donor nations and individuals and providing general information on the pandemic’s spread to the World Health Organization’s local office in Kenya.
At the same time, the Environment Program must follow the instructions of its Kenyan hosts — the government — which poses additional challenges, Andersen said, mainly restrictions on foreign travel and gatherings.
Andersen said she’s proud of how her team is handling the challenge. As working virtually becomes the new normal, she noted optimistically, “we can reduce our carbon footprint.”
Andersen’s three-decade career in international development and sustainability includes 12 years at other UN offices and 15 at the World Bank. Before joining the UN, she led the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a public-private organization known for its Red List of Threatened Species.
The interview with Andersen took place in March, during which she discussed her work on the environment as well as gender equality at the UN. Her remarks have been edited for space and clarity.
Q: What has struck you most during your stint at the UN? The first takeaway is this enormous interest in the environment. It is a global phenomenon. Young people are in the streets. Students want to study and address environmental challenges. It’s at the forefront of policymakers’ agendas. It’s in the media and in the public domain, including elections. This is a topic that has global attention, and our secretary-general [Guterres] has been particularly helpful in putting a strong focus on climate change and our need to take action now, and that is really good. We see this groundswell on climate change, and that in turn has led to a broader understanding of the regulatory systems that enable us to live on this good planet, and also an understanding that vibrant nature is what provides our watersheds and local hydrological cycles, it is what enables us to get the food we eat, the water we drink, the air that we breathe, the clothes we wear.
The IPBES [Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, an independent organization], which is equivalent to the IPCC [the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] but dealing with the nature and biodiversity and ecosystems, issued a report last year that said of 7.8 million species, about 1 million are under threat of extinction. That is something that has come to the fore.
Q: And how is UNEP responding to this growing interest in biodiversity and ecosystems? We host 15 multilateral environmental agreements, including a number that deal with nature and biodiversity, and we are a host of IPBES and of IPCC, so we see this engagement. In the private sector, at Davos in January, the World Economic Forum’s risk report highlighted that 5 of the top 10 risks were related to the environment, obviously climate but also biological diversity. So there is this awareness.
Never before have the mandate, mission and objectives of UNEP been more in focus. So obviously I am in awe of the staff. I see very strong collaboration from member states, and strong voices from civic and [business] groups. All of that is to say that I am very enthusiastic and energized. Here is an opportunity for energy-poor countries to leapfrog over a polluting age and go straight to a sustainable age, and that’s the kind of stuff that we work on. That’s what young people want, that’s what [many] businesses and governments want, so there are real opportunities here.
Q: The UN has been criticized for its scattered approach to environmental management with multiple conference of parties for each treaty: CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), the Montreal Protocol (a treaty on ozone protection), the Basel Convention (on the control of hazardous wastes), etc. Is this balkanization a problem? To be clear, these conventions are UNEP-managed, but of course each has its own conference of parties and binding commitments that are made under intergovernmental agreements. The same for the Convention on Migratory Species and the four chemical conventions. Each has a mandate and mission and parties to which they are accountable. The UN Environment Assembly does not have a regulatory space over these conventions, that’s important to recognize, but offers up a platform, a docking station where these conventions can exchange [ideas].
Q: Switching topics, how would you rate the secretary-general’s gender equality initiatives at the UN? I really admire what the secretary-general has done. He has essentially started by ensuring that his senior team has gender parity. Now that’s possible because at the higher levels we roll over faster than colleagues with longer-term contracts, and obviously you don’t fire people because of their gender.
Q: How should the secretary-general’s mission be advanced? As a woman with a long professional career, I can tell you that there’s hidden bias, and you have to be mindful of that in making appointments. We don’t have affirmative action, but we can ensure that female candidates have a chance to be presented competitively. We assume that females are the exception and the world is designed for that nominal man. Who will lead? Of course it will be a man. Who will take the floor? Well, of course. . . . Bursting these bubbles — and ensuring that society in all its beauty and diversity is represented — is important, and I think that’s why the secretary-general has made gender equality a clear goal; certainly we are trying to emulate that here at UNEP.
Q: Do you still see this hidden bias at play — are certain leadership roles reserved de facto for men, such as UN peacekeeping, for example? There are more and more women leaders in peacekeeping, which I really applaud. And I think the secretary-general, in a seminal speech on women and power, also highlighted that when you have strong women leaders, peacekeeping grows better roots.