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Carbonballs: “Norwegians should not have a guilty conscience about flying,” says Erik Solheim, not long before being forced to resign as head of UNEP for running up a ridiculously huge carbon footprint

REDD-Monitor’s occasional series, Carbonballs features the climate howlers made by so-called environmental leaders. Today’s post features Erik Solheim, who resigned this week as head of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Solheim’s resignation came after an audit by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services was leaked to The Guardian. The audit revealed that Solheim had spent US$488,518 on air travel and hotels in 22 months. He spent almost 80% of his time travelling.

This, the Office of Internal Oversight Services drily notes, is a “reputation risk” for an organisation that’s supposed to take climate change seriously.

In a statement on the UNEP website, Solheim writes that he is “committed to doing what I believe to be in the best interest of UN Environment and the mission we are here to achieve”.

That statement just cannot be taken seriously. Solheim told Flysmart24, a Norwegian aviation website, that, “Norwegians should not have a guilty conscience about flying.” People who travel a lot should not feel they are doing anything wrong, he said.

He has gold frequent flyer cards with at all three major airline alliances.

Solheim’s justification for flying is delusional. He argues that at some point in the future the aviation industry will be environmentally friendly and thus wishes away the impact his flying has on climate change:

Air traffic is going to grow drastically, and tourism is the fastest growing industry in the world. The only realistic answer is to make it much more environmentally friendly. Electric aircraft and biofuels will be part of the solution. Airline companies must continue to develop new aircraft using less fuel, and airlines must use them.

“Obscene CO2 hypocrisy”

Solheim’s flying amounts to “Obscene CO2 hypocrisy,” as Kevin Anderson of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research put it:

Solheim loves business class. He told Flysmart24 that,

“I now have the opportunity to travel at the front of the planes, in business class. I can lay down the seat into a bed and sleep through a long flight. It makes it possible to arrive at the destination rested and start work as soon as you land. That’s great when you like to spend three nights on a plane.”

Several countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark, and Sweden, announced that they were freezing funding to UNEP until the audit and its recommendations were published.

Washington to New York, via Paris

Here are a couple of extracts from the draft audit:

Some of the trips to Oslo and Paris were called ‘bilateral meetings,’ even though they took place during weekends or the Christmas holidays… On one occasion he made an eight hour flight from Washington DC for a weekend in Paris, before he boarded another flight for New York.

The UNEP and UN’s Nairobi office should reclaim from these employees (1) all travel expenses and the related working hours which have not been accounted for; and (2) all additional costs incurred by the UNEP as a consequence of uneconomic and inefficient decisions by the management.

Solheim allegedly gave permission for two senior UNEP staff to work from Paris, instead of Nairobi.

One of them received more than US$20,000 as a “special security allowance” for Nairobi, despite the fact that he worked from Paris. The draft audit report notes that allowing staff to work from Paris is in breach of UN regulations:

Such arrangements will set the presedent [sic] for other employees who wish to work out of a place of their own choice, and probably lead to speculations about unfair treatment or claims when such request are being rejected.

UNEP’s profligate travelling

Aftenposten reports that since 2014, UNEP’s travel budget has doubled. Between January 2016 and March 2018, UNEP staff managed to get through US$58 million on travel, clocking up a total of nearly 30,000 trips.

The draft audit notes that UNEP failed to acknowledge the environmental impacts of its profligate travelling:

The management have not introduced guidelines, routines or incentives for their staff when it comes to controlling their travels and consequently the carbon emissions. Employees have not been encouraged to find alternative ways of travelling.

According to Aftenposten, the audit by the Office of Internal Oversight Services was started after UNEP staff in Nairobi sent an anonymous letter to Solheim, 18 months after he was appointed Executive Director.

Among the many criticisms of Solheim in the letter is the following:

You are hardly available to provide leadership to the organisation as you are constantly traveling together with your special assistants most specifically Hao Chen. Millions of resources have been lost in your business class travels, some of which are not necessary.

Nevertheless, on 1 March 2018, Stéphane Dujarric, Spokesman for the UN Secretary-General António Guterres, stated that, “I have no doubt that Mr. Solheim is operating and running the agency in accordance to all relevant rules and regulations.”

Solheim helping to greenwash Shell

In December 2017, REDD-Monitor criticised a speech that Solheim gave in which he managed to link civil society with groups supporting ISIS in Europe.

A few days before giving that speech, Solheim was in a meeting with Shell. He tweeted about it:

His timing was unfortunate, to say the least. Amnesty International had just released a review of a large number of internal documents and other evidence that point to Shell’s complicity in the horrific crimes committed by the Nigerian military in the 1990s.

Incidentally, the man on Solheim’s left in the photograph he tweeted is Muralee Thummarukudy. Before joining UNEP, he worked for nearly four years at … Shell, followed by four years at Petroleum Development Oman.

Shortly after the post on REDD-Monitor about Solheim, I received an anonymous email from someone working at UNEP. The source told me that,

“I share your concerns about Mr. Solheim’s communications with the NGO community and the wider public, as well as his engagement with the private sector. Especially the interaction with Shell in Nigeria is very disturbing….

This may only be the tip of the iceberg. It would be good if the media continues to follow closely the operations of the Director of this organisation.”


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