The United Nations has a web page on civil society, on which it states that:
Civil society is the “third sector” of society, along with government and business. It comprises civil society organizations and non-governmental organizations. The UN recognizes the importance of partnering with civil society, because it advances the Organization’s ideals, and helps support its work.
Erik Solheim appears to have a completely different idea of civil society. On 29 November 2017, Erik Solheim, Head of UNEP, gave a speech to the Committee of Permanent Representatives. In the speech, he said,
Civil society is everything from the worst to the best. Civil society is those driving the green change, but civil society frankly is also those groups that supported the ISIS terrorism in Europe, those groups propagating for that, for wars in many parts of the world. So civil society is everything from the worst to the best.
Solheim tweeted an explanation shortly after his speech:
Solheim’s comment came 20 minutes into his speech, which was largely an attempt to justify UNEP’s partnerships with corporations. The entire speech is available here.
In his speech, Solheim notes that we are destroying biodiversity, polluting the planet, and increasing the global temperature. “We see Mother Earth fighting back”, he says referring to the cyclones in the Caribbean and the US, floods in Bangladesh and parts of South Asia, landslides in Sierra Leone, the melting of the Arctic, sand and dust storms in Iran and the Middle East.
But it wasn’t all bad news in 2017, Solheim argues. The Minamata Convention on Mercury came into effect, aimed at reducing mercury pollution. The Kigali Protocol was adopted, aimed at reducing the manufacture and use of Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs). Then there was COP23. “Every nation, except one, is on board for the Paris Agreement,” Solheim says.
And the UNEP got “two million pledges from individuals for our fight pollution, or ending pollution pledge”.
The UK and Canada launched the “Powering Past Coal” alliance.
Also in 2017, China’s president Xi Jinping, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, set out an “ecological civilisation as the big aim for China”.
Solheim talks about the Sustainable Development Goals. He talks about pollution, which is “front and centre” of the UNEP General Assembly. And he talks about decoupling economic growth from pollution. “Some people say it’s not possible,” he says. “I tell you, not only possible, it’s happening basically everywhere.”
Humanity is, according to Solheim, “stepping up to the challenge”.
Solheim seems to have forgotten the comment he gave to the Guardian only a few weeks ago. In reaction to a report by the World Meteorological Organization that revealed record levels of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere in 2016, Solheim said,
“The numbers don’t lie. We are still emitting far too much and this needs to be reversed. What we need now is global political will and a new sense of urgency.”
“We need business”
“We need business,” Solheim says in his speech to the Committee of Permanent Representatives. “When I come into UN Environment and the UN system at large, I take it as one of my absolute priorities to change the way we work with business.”
This is not to say that all businesses are doing well, obviously we can find bad apples within business, I mean it’s very clear. As we can find bad apples in civil society, and even governments, who do bad things. But overall, businesses are a force for good.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with this sort of Panglossian statement. Just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions since 1998. Yet the UNEP targets individuals to reduce their pollution. And partners with corporations.
Solheim seems oblivious to the governments around the world that are in thrall to corporations and their lobbyists. He appears not to have heard of the massive tax evasion by multilateral corporations exposed in the Panama Papers and more recently in the Paradise Papers.
And the examples that Solheim gives of business “driving the change” are all problematic.
Bike sharing in China
Solheim tells his audience that there are 100 bicycles provided by Mobike, a Chinese bike sharing company. “Please use these Mobikes”, Solheim says.
“This is a private sector solution. The city government of Beijing has given zero economic support to this. It’s business. Business providing the bikes, but so many people are using them that the price comes down to 10 cents per ride, which most people can afford to do. Simply to make a business solution at scale to a problem which is how to move around in the cities.”
This would have been a good time to talk about the necessity of regulation. The photograph below is of a bicycle dump in the city of Xiamen in China. The pile of bikes covers the area of a football field. The pile includes bikes from Mobike, Ofo and the now-bankrupt Bluegogo:
Solheim says that, “Every car company in the world is now going into electical mobility.” Tesla announced last week that they are going to make cars that will go 1,000 kilometres per charge. “This is of course a revolution,” Solheim says.
We might hope that the head of the UNEP, speaking at the General Assembly where pollution is “front and centre” would at least give a passing comment to the pollution associated with the key ingredients of batteries for electric cars. Graphite, for example.
In October 2017, an article in the Washington Post looked in detail at the impacts of graphite on communities in China. Mashan, in Heilongjiang province in China, is the “City of Graphite”. One villager tells the Washington Post that the dust is everywhere.
“The graphite dust floats in the air the whole day. When you breathe, you inhale it. And my vegetables that are planted in the back yard are covered in it.
[ . . . ]
“They mine anywhere on the mountain that they want to. The plants release their discharge into the water. And it’s impossible to do anything about it.”
Solheim mentions government regulations. But according to him, regulations are there to serve corporations, not to protect citizens. “It’s government regulations which will decide how fast this revolution happens,” he says.
Plastic and Sky News
Solheim tells us that Sky News is “changing the business mode”. He tells us about visiting Sky News’ headquarters in London:
First you will see the huge cafeteria, which is the cafeteria of the staff, called Ocean Rescue, and you will see any number of installations showing the staff and visitors the need to change on plastics.
Solheim notes that Sky News is owned by Rupert Murdoch. “If I asked you for a vote,” Solheim says, “I think environment may not be the first word you think of when you think of Mr. Murdoch.”
None of this seems to worry Solheim. True, plastic pollution in the oceans is a serious problem. True, Sky News has produced a programme about plastic pollution. But the message is that we should clean up plastic waste on beaches and in rivers.
There’s nothing in the Sky News’ programme about the corporations that profit from producing ever more plastic. The video ends with the comment, “I believe we can have and we can use plastics to our advantage without the need for this acumulation of waste.”
Defend environmental defenders
Solheim’s hypocrisy is perhaps most vivid when he talks about the “need to defend those activists on the forefront of fighting for the environment”. He says that UNEP will demand that governments carry out proper investigations when people are killed because they are defending the environment.
This week, Amnesty International published a review of thousands of internal company documents and witness statements that point to Shell’s alleged involvement in human rights abuses in Nigeria in the 1990s. Amnesty International is clear in its demands:
Amnesty International is calling on the governments of Nigeria, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom to investigate, with a view to prosecution, Shell’s potential involvement in crimes linked to human rights violations committed by the Nigerian security forces in Ogoniland in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, instead of demanding that the governments investigate Shell’s potential involvement in human rights abuses, including the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other men, Solheim and UNEP are busy supporting Shell’s greenwashing:
Civil society is absolutely right to demanding an apology from Solheim about his comments linking civil society and terrorism. But UNEP’s cosy partnerships with corporations are possibly even more worrying.