You are here: Interview: Stanley Johnson on the green agenda

The conservationist and writer tells UNA-UK’s Executive Director about the achievements of the UN Environment Programme, his doubts about ‘green growth’, and why forests should be our priority.

How did the book come about? I was invited by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to write this history to mark its 40th anniversary. My pattern in life is always to say yes to proposals and I was particularly ready to do so on this occasion because I’ve been involved with UNEP one way or the other right from the start. Indeed, I was a consultant to Maurice Strong, the Programme’s first director, in the run-up to the first-ever UN conference on the human environment in 1972. So this was a way for me to revisit what I have witnessed over the past four decades.

One of the most important milestones was undoubtedly what UNEP did on ozone depletion in the 1970s and 1980s. It seized the scientific evidence and, under the leadership of Mostafa Tolba, ran with it, scoring a string of remarkable successes with the Vienna Convention on protecting the ozone layer, the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete it, and funding to ensure they got implemented. Now, experts predict that the ozone hole could return to its normal state by 2050.

Another milestone – and potential success – was UNEP’s role in setting up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I say potential success because, although it was a totally brilliant kick off to UN action on the climate problem in 1988, the follow-up to the Panel’s work has been lacking and here we are, 25 years later, still trying to get an effective regime in place.

It was a shame that the lead role on the creation of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was taken away from UNEP and given to a special intergovernmental committee. Some hard-hitting stuff on emissions or consumption, with economic consequences, might have come out of the Convention otherwise. Cynics would say that governments were afraid that the UN might be successful and that Tolba would be up there on his platform bullying them into making an agreement they didn’t necessarily want to have. In the event, we got something that was good at setting out the objective but not the action needed.

In some ways, we haven’t moved forward much since then. We’ve still got leaders saying we must urgently address climate change. We’ve still got individuals who doubt the science. We’ve still got divisions between developed and developing countries. And we have utterly failed to get to grips with the forest issue. In 1990, I went to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization to help draft a forests convention, intended for discussion at the 1992 Earth Summit, alongside the biodiversity, climate and desertification texts. It withered under intense opposition. This should be a top priority for us now.

I confess I’m also a little wary of the current push for green growth. In many ways, it’s repackaging the same ideas of the sustainable development movement – this belief that we can continue to grow and consume ad nauseam if only we do it right. I can understand why this approach is being taken but I don’t buy it. I would much prefer the UN to come out and say that we need to change our lifestyles, clamp back on economic growth and take action to stabilise our consumption and population.

Of course, this would not be acceptable to most states. Every politician today will make the case for growth, growth and more growth. Sure, if every country, every corporation and every individual took all the actions set out by UNEP and others, it is possible that we might be able to reverse the damage, or the rate of damage, of climate change. But what about biodiversity? What about our ecosystems?

Overall, I’m afraid I think our chances of advancing the agenda in the next few years are pretty iffy. States have given themselves a deadline of 2015 to decide on something that will begin to bite in 2020. Even getting to that stage won’t be easy. It’s been hard enough trying to claw back ground after the disastrous UNFCCC meeting in 2009.

If we are going to see movement, Brazil, China, India – the large emerging economies – will need to accept binding emissions curbs. China seems to have radically changed its position and has adopted ambitious national targets, but nothing at the global level yet. The same goes for the US, although its success in reducing emissions over the past five years owes more, perhaps, to the economic slowdown and the shale gas boon, than to progressive policies.

Do I think a new World Environment Organisation would make a difference? In my view, we already have one, especially now that UNEP’s membership has been made universal. Think of the time that would have been spent drafting from scratch a new treaty, building support, trying to get the big countries on board. And there’s no guarantee that we would have got something better. Yes, it sounds great to say we’ve created this new body that will change things – that’s what we said in Stockholm when UNEP was created – but how about we put our energy into what we do have.

The UK has a real role to play in this, as a key player within UNEP and through our membership of the EU. And although my short-term prognosis isn’t overly optimistic, I do think that we as individuals must continue to take action. In particular, we must keep pegging away at our parliamentarians, including those in Strasbourg.

The EU is such a dominant player in international environmental politics. When it gets its act together, there are brilliant outcomes, like the Habitats Directive which protects fauna and flora. When it fails, the consequences can be serious. Earlier this year, a proposal to ban cross-border trade in polar bears was defeated at meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, in part because the EU had been unable to agree a common position and therefore abstained.

We can also change our own lifestyles, although I’m afraid I can’t claim to be leading by example, other than through bicycling! I’ve had far too many children, way above my replacement rate, even if you divide them by the number of wives.

Smart choices on food, for instance, can have a huge impact. You probably eat less meat if you go down the organic route, and when you do, it will have been produced in a far more sustainable way. There is a triple pay-off in terms of health, environment and animal welfare.

And I think we must be ready to fight against those things that are really bad, especially when they’re dressed up as solutions, like the UK’s plans to convert power plants to wood burners (in my opinion), or the mass clearing of forests in order to produce biodiesel from palm oil. We can do it. Look at the impact that the UN Economic Commission for Europe had on car exhaust emissions, or the work of the International Maritime Organization on ocean pollution.

So many of these international agreements have a profound impact on our lives. And although we might not – yet – have made the progress we need, I think that as a result of these agreements we have managed to stop things getting as bad as fast as they would have done. That surely is an achievement.