13 Jun 2017 Speech Ecosystems

Speech delivered at The Sixth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health in Ostrava: A Return to Common Sense Living

Ministers, Excellencies, Executive Secretary, Ladies and gentlemen, Ostrava is the perfect place to host this conference. Not just because of the legacy of heavy industry that brought prosperity and pollution in equal measure. But because of the concerted effort to move away from that to a cleaner, healthier but equally prosperous future - negotiating with the steel works to further reduce environmental impact; seeking UNESCO heritage status for some of the industrial infrastructure to serve as a reminder for future generations, and moving forward with integrated public transport systems.

As towns and cities like Ostrava continue to grow, the impact of pollution on the air we breathe is unmissable: From Paris having to impose road restrictions and London exceeding safe annual limits within the first 5 days of this year, to school kids in Sarajevo hoisting flags in their playground to monitor how bad it is.

A problem so recently associated with people in rural parts of developing nations burning wood or coal in their homes or living in dustbowl conditions, is a threat for people everywhere. In fact, over 90% of the world’s population breathes dirty air. It’s costing $5 trillion in welfare and $225 billion in lost income, every year.

What’s more, that is only one of a growing array of pollution problems that are very quietly, very steadily damaging our health. It is 36,000 feet down in the Mariana Trench - the deepest part of the ocean; 36,000 feet up in busy air traffic corridors; on the most remote and uninhabited, but densely polluted islands on earth; and most places in between. We humans are polluting everything we need to eat, drink or breathe.

If a natural disaster or terrorist attack wipes out 13 hundred people we are horrified – we want to help the victims and to stop it happening again. Yet we can watch up to 13 million people die year after year after year from pollution and environmental degradation – and we do nothing. However, if tackled properly, those “threats” could fuel social and economic development.

Let me give you just a couple of examples.

Chemicals contribute to almost every aspect of our lives. From clean water and medical care to agriculture and food chains. But we allow them use to spread across the planet much faster than we can assess their impact on our lives and much faster than we can control any problems.

Today, there are more than 130,000 chemicals on the market. The health and environmental impacts of just a fraction have been properly assessed. That doesn’t stop them ending up in our homes, our business and the 10 million tonnes of solid urban waste we dump every year. Everyday items like pizza boxes, microwave popcorn and nappies pose a threat to the hormone balance of humans, wildlife and our entire food chain.

Governments, businesses and consumers wait until every last scrap of evidence is debated and every legal loophole closed before taking action. And we do it one chemical at a time and decades at a time.

Surely we all have a moral responsibility to act when there is a doubt, not when there are victims?

The companies applying common sense and sound ethics are building new markets and sound profits.

The Coop Denmark is a $6 billion retailer with 40% share of the market. Like microwave popcorn everywhere, theirs used fluorinated compounds to stop the paper melting from the hot grease. It is perfectly legal, but they could see growing concerns around links to health problems, including cancer, hormone disruption and lower birth weights. Rather than wait years for a change in the law, they pulled the products from their shelves until they could find a company that could help them develop a natural alternative. They still have a problem keeping the popcorn on their shelves – but now it’s because there is so much demand, not because there is so much concern.

That’s just one example. Global chemical sales are already worth up to $5 trillion per year and will triple by 2050. So, what’s good for the planet can also be good for profits.

Or look at mercury.

Thanks to a huge effort from European leaders, the Minamata Convention has been ratified in time to hold the first Conference of the Parties in September.

However, even though it is 60 years since the Minamata coast in Japan revealed the true horrors of mercury poisoning, we are finding mercury in the once pristine waters of the Arctic. We are letting it run through the bare hands of artisan gold miners who have no alternative source of income. And we are letting it seep into our soil, water and air from millions of tonnes of electronic waste being dumped illegally each year.

Again, this is about common sense: for business, for consumers and for government. We strip natural resources from the planet at an incredible financial, human and environmental cost. We are on track to double extraction rates by 2050. But, incredibly, we continue to through them away without recouping their full worth.

I mentioned electronic waste. Last year, consumers bought 1.5 billion smartphones and 440 million computers and tablets. As chips and software become obsolete increasingly quickly manufacturers spend billions developing and launching new products to stay ahead of the field. Consumers spend their hard-earned cash upgrading products that aren’t even broken. And governments are left with about 50 million tonnes of illegally dumped electronic goods every year.

That illegal dumping includes harmful lead compounds, mercury, cadmium and chromium, as well as gases that damage the ozone layer and global warming. They end up in our soil, water, food and air. That makes no sense when the legitimate waste market is already worth $400 billion a year, generating sustainable jobs. It makes even less sense, when you realize that the illegally dumped eWaste includes materials worth over $50 billion a year, including around 300 tonnes of gold – 11% annual production.

You would think that if we saw somebody throw 300 tonnes of gold into landfill or the sea we would think they were crazy. We would stop them.

Apparently not!

Or as a last example, what about plastic?

The use of plastic has increased 20-fold in the past 50 years. We produce over 300 million tonnes of it every year and up to 13 million tonnes of that ends up on our oceans. Again, that is year after year after year.

By 2050, we will have more plastic than fish in our oceans. It is already killing biodiversity and entering our food chain. And, yet again, common sense should tell us that apart from questioning the wisdom of eating toxin coated microbeads with every mouthful of fish or meat. We should also be questioning the wisdom of throwing away billions and billions of dollars and euros every year.

Just 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling globally. That’s $80-$120 billion of material lost to the economy, when innovation and design could unlock huge economic potential. The 20% suitable for reuse is worth at least $9 billion. While the 50% suitable for recycling is worth up to $3 billion across OECD countries alone.

More than a million people have signed our #cleanseas petition for action on the plastic hitting our oceans. So, there is huge market potential for those willing to develop alternatives. Not the kind of things that only biodegrade in specific conditions, but a true lifecycle approach that works everywhere.

The European Commission is planning to publish a strategy on plastics as part of its Circular Economy Action Plan by the end of 2017. It’s a great start, but it’s not enough. Governments can’t fix this alone. Producers, consumers, academics and the media all have a role to play.

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the Montreal Protocol. In reversing the damage to the ozone layer, it became the most successful joint effort ever seen across all those stakeholders.

But we need to outstrip it 10 times over if we are going to tackle pollution.

We need to work with governments and scientists to provide evidence and lead the assessment of all important chemicals and waste.

We need to work with the private sector and the legal community to develop better controls, quicker responses and innovative alternatives.

We need to work with schools to educate young people who will develop the chemicals, pharmaceuticals and consumer products of the future.

And we need to work with the general public to leverage their purchasing power and household decision making.

The scale of the risk to our health and the opportunities for sustainable, economic growth are unprecedented. Turning away from unfettered consumption, production and waste, would be a return to common sense living.

That is why, this December, the UN Environment Assembly is bringing all those stakeholders together to tackle pollution on an equally unprecedented scale. This is a unique opportunity to deliver tangible, united action that will touch people’s lives.

Gatherings like this one in Ostrava are crucial building blocks to make that possible. So, please - on behalf of the 13 million people who will have no voice by the end of this year - please work with your colleagues in transport, energy, employment and economy ministries to help the Assembly prevent the same fate for millions more in the years to come.

Thank you.