19 Oct 2017 Speech Air

No such thing as waste

Opening session of the Council of Arab Ministers Responsible for Environment (CAMRE)

19 October 2017, Cairo

In just 45 days, heads of state and government ministers, industrial and civic leaders, scientists and, of course, the world’s media - will gather in Nairobi for the UN Environment Assembly.

It will be just the third time this ‘parliament for the planet’ convenes. But it will mark a major turning point for the Assembly and its member states. At a time when we must convince the world that business as usual is no longer acceptable, UN Environment is determined to lead by example. That’s why this Assembly will focus on achieving a significant step change for an issue that is one of the single biggest threats to human health and the environment. One emerging as a driving force behind the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. And one that underpins almost every goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development


When I talk about pollution, I am talking about any substances or energy entering the environment, which can endanger human health, natural resources and ecosystems. Such pollution impairs the use of the environment for work and recreation. It threatens the cultural, spiritual and aesthetic values that reflect the richness and diversity of life on earth.

There are many reasons behind it. From the choice of technology when making large investments or shifting industrial processes. To consumer habits and the design of buildings and products. And the way we dispose of waste when we’ve finished with our water, plastic, chemicals and other items.

But when you consider that just a fraction of the 130,000 chemicals on the market are properly tested, tracked and controlled, or that rapidly growing urban areas already create over 10 million tonnes of solid waste each year, it is easy to see how the impact of such choices can be worsened by a lack of legal regulations, enforcement or knowledge.

And, unfortunately, the resulting pollution can be both a catalyst and a bi-product of armed conflicts, industrial accidents and natural disasters. This is something we can see all too clearly with the oil that’s burning in Iraq and seeping into the ground in Nigeria. In the sand and dust storms blowing across the borders from Syria. The cyanide and mercury used by artisan miners in Colombia, which accounts for 80% of the gold export.

Tackling pollution is one of the most complex challenges of our generation.

It threatens to intensify with rising consumption, living standards and population growth. But, whatever the root cause and trends this lethal mix of air, water, land, oceans, chemicals and waste pollution is very quietly killing us by infiltrating everything we eat, drink and breathe. And it is very steadily destroying the natural resources we need to support our industry, economy and security.

Yet such self-extinction is an optional extra in world that is also very steadily pulling more people out of poverty and giving them access to energy, education and healthcare. The challenge is how to continue improving people’s standard of living, while reducing rather than increasing related pollution.

All forms of pollution are as preventable as they are reversible - if governments, companies and individual citizens join forces.

For too long, the relationship between prosperity and environment was considered a trade-off. Waste and pollution were seen as imposing costs and curbing growth, instead of being embraced as opportunities for profit and prosperity. No more!

Take air pollution. About 90% of us breathe dirty air, which claims the lives of around 7 million people each year, costs about $5 trillion in healthcare and $225 billion in lost income.

This cannot be dismissed as a problem for poorer regions, where millions continue to pay for basic heating and cooking with their health. In the Middle East and China, sand and dust storms cause cardiovascular and respiratory disease, traffic accidents and schools closures. In the US, families move across states to ease the asthma of their kids. And in Europe, Paris having restricts cars and London exceeds the safe limits for 2017 in just 5 days.

Yet, affordable, clean integrated transport or energy are game changers. That demand is fuelled by climate action, business growth and a desire for more stability and security, but the health benefits for are enormous and it can change life for the billion plus people still without electricity

So, countries leading the way are creating huge social and economic advantages for their citizens and their industrialists. It should be no surprise to anyone then that investment in renewable energy has grown six-fold in just a decade. That it accounts for more than 90% of Europe’s new generation capacity. Or that it is creating more new jobs in China and the US than oil and gas.

In fact, around the world, eight million people now work in renewables and about half a million solar panels were installed every day, cutting costs by a quarter.

And the Arab Region is no exception. On a national scale, Dubai building the world’s largest Concentrated Solar Power project. Saudi Arabia launching a renewable program worth up to $50 billion by 2023. Morocco producing more than half its electricity from renewables by 2030.  

But, we can also see the young entrepreneurs seizing new opportunities. Here in Egypt Ahmed Zahran set up Karm Solar 6 years ago. Today, they employ more than 50 people to install and sell solar power. Having secured 30 year contracts with major food producers, they are now targeting $70 million from investors. Shaymaa Omar launched her Biogas production project just 3 years ago. It is already being implemented in more than 12 governorates in Nile Delta and Upper Egypt. And she is keen to expand to other countries.

An equally compelling case can be made for other forms of pollution. Look at the impact of failing to supply basic waste and water management. The cost to our ecosystems and biodiversity needs to be better understood, but is already causing devastation. It can be seen in the fertilizer run-off creating ‘dead zones’ in the sea and killing bees. In the nappies, pizza boxes and popcorn bags increasingly linked to cancer, hormone changes and other health risks. And in the microplastics making their way into our biodiversity, food chain and dinner plates.

The cost to humans is an immeasurable mix of malaria, mercury poisoning, diarrhoeal and other preventable diseases. Every year it contributes to the 13 million people dying from environmental causes, with children and low or middle-income countries bearing the brunt - including the 4,000 children that die from dirty water and poor sanitation. And the cost to our economies is a long-term burden arising from lost workdays, medical bills and loss of precious natural resources. It locks families into poverty, puts businesses at risk and slows progress for entire communities, countries and regions.

However, if you decide to flip those problems, then incredible things become possible.

Take tourism. In the Caribbean, about 85% of wastewater is pumped into the sea untreated. Yet, a hectare of healthy coral reef can be worth over $1 million a year.

What about consumer products? Demand for plastic has increased 20-fold in the last 50 years, but up to13 million tonnes in the ocean every year. It’s already affecting more 600 different species, with everything from whales and dolphins, to seabirds and turtles, and even tin molluscs falling victim to it. That’s something I am sure will be tackled when the next gathering of the Convention of Biological Diversity is hosted in Sharm El-Sheikh next year. Instead, why not recover the plastic packaging worth up to $120 billion before it hits the sea? Or explore innovative alternatives, like using the excess algae being created by nutrient pollution to use as feedstock for 3D printing – something being explored by China and the US.

On an industrial scale, think about something like air conditioning. Today, there are close to a billion units, but in the next 30 years that market will be around 2.5 billion. If every unit is the same price and performance as the most efficient units today, the energy savings would be like switching off about 2,500 power plants and it would save around 100 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide.

Or what about the 1.5 billion mobile phones and 440 million computers and tablets we buy every year? We end up illegally dumping about 50 million tonnes of electronic waste every year - compete with an array of toxic substances and gases that damage the ozone layer and the climate. Yet that also contains valuable substances that are expensive to extract – not least about 300 tons of gold – around 11% of global production. That waste is actually worth over $50 billion a year and the legitimate waste market is already worth more than eight times that.

In other words, there’s no such thing as waste, only wasted opportunities.

Of course, pollution is not a new phenomenon. Nor is action to counter it.

What is new, is the very real window of opportunity to accelerate and scale up that action. The chance to turn something that threatens our very existence into a sustainable source of health, wealth and wellbeing. Incredible advances in science and technology allow us to better understand the problems, monitor progress and develop solutions. Growing demand and action from individual citizens and consumers are paving the way for new policies and products. New markets for growth and being snapped up by businesses and investors. And governments are leveraging all of this, to not only deliver benefits for their own people, but to deliver unprecedented progress through international cooperation.

The big question for all of us – can we realize the incredible appetite for change that we have saw emerge with those landmark agreements two years ago?

I believe we can, if we leverage innovation and competition to intensify and accelerate these trends around the world. At the Assembly, there will be focus on five practical steps to help achieve that.

  • First, encouraging political leadership and partnerships, through a global compact on pollution to ensure high level engagement from both the public and private sectors.
  • Second, strengthening policies and governance through risk assessments, enhanced legislation, multilateral agreements, and other measures;
  • Third, adapting our lifestyles and economies to embrace sustainable consumption and production, resource efficiency and waste management.
  • Fourth, mobilizing finance, investment and innovation in low-carbon and clean opportunities to better understand, manage and counter pollution.
  • And, fifth, advocating for action: citizens need to be informed and inspired to reduce their own pollution footprint and advocate for bold pollution-beating commitments from the public and private sectors.

So, we cannot fail to realize either the size of the challenge ahead, or our ability to put some of the most significant social, economic and environmental developments in a generation within our grasp.

The speed with which new products are developed and adopted by consumers, puts a huge strain on the legislative system required to assess and control them. Even just for those 130,00 chemicals, the market is already worth over $5 trillion per year demand is expected to triple in the next 30 years. But we cannot possibly assess, legislate and enforce change one at a time, one after the other. As the chemist Paul Anastas points out, it took his team 23 years just to get dioxin banned. So, by the time we fix one issue, the market will have moved onto a new product not yet on the list.

Fortunately, while we don’t have all the answers, we can build on a substantial framework of international conventions and national laws to tackle some of the worst excesses. The Stockholm, Basel & Rotterdam Conventions are phasing out of numerous banned pesticides and chemicals. The Minamata Convention entered force this year to bring mercury under control. The phasing out of lead in petrol is nearly complete, saving about a million lives and 4% of GDP each year.

And, of course, this year is the 30th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol. As well as putting the hole in the ozone layer on track for recovery, by 2050 it will have saved millions of people from being diagnosed with skin cancer or cataracts, along with $2 trillion in health costs. And, if we can ratify and implement the Kigali amendment, we can also prevent another half a degree of global warming.

Tackling the pollution challenge is vital to securing human well-being. This isn’t a choice between a healthy environment and a healthy economy. We can – and must - have both. It’s the only way to fulfil the rights of future generations.

As the UN Climate Conference in Morrocco highlighted, there is a clear and unbreakable connection between clean energy and energy efficiency, pollution and global warming. Whichever way you look at it, the right choices are just as profitable for business and the economy as they are for the planet and its people. They protect social, economic and environmental development, combat climate change and desertification, and, of course, curb pollution.

So, I want to thank you for your efforts, but also to ask all Arab cities, companies and citizens to support the UN Environment Campaign to Beat Pollution

Member States took a bold decision to focus this year’s Environment Assembly on pollution, this is the perfect way to turn that decision into tangible action.


Thank you.