20 Feb 2018 Story Disasters & conflicts

Before the flood: Environment and security in the spotlight

For the first time, the role of the environment in promoting security was addressed at one of the world’s most important international policy forums.

The Munich Security Conference has brought together some of the world’s most prominent government and security officials since its founding in 1963. Ways of tackling inter-state conflicts, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction are among the topics that have traditionally dominated the meeting’s agenda.

At this year’s conference, which took place from 16-18 February, UN Environment hosted a round-table discussion, “Before the Flood: Environment and Security in the Modern World”. The session brought together government officials, parliamentarians, the military and intelligence community, private sector and media to consider how environmental action can be a solution to security issues.

“Directing at least part of military spending to environmental needs could radically change the situation in countries engaged in military conflicts”, said UN Environment Head Erik Solheim in his opening address. Environmental spending would not only build trust in countries affected by conflict, but also provide “a powerful impetus to the economy while improving people’s health and quality of life,” he said.

Erik Solheim
UN Environment Executive Director Erik Solheim (left) participates in a round-table discussion on environment and security at the 2018 Munich Security Conference (Source: MSC/Karl-Josef Hildebrand).

The environmental consequences of military conflicts are many times greater than their military component, Mr. Solheim underlined. The presence of chemicals or oil refining in a conflict zone, which may even be simply damaged and not destroyed, can cause an ecological catastrophe in neighbouring countries, he said.

The side event featured presentations by Professor Vassiliki Koubi of ETH Zurich and the University of Bern, Dr. Timothy Prior of ETH Zürich, Dr. Oliver Scanlan from the Oxford Research Group, and Dr. Leila Urekenova of UN Environment’s Europe Office. Keynote addresses were delivered by Judge Alice Hill and UNFCCC Executive Secretary Ambassador Patricia Espinosa Cantellano. UN Environment Regional Coordinator Mahir Aliyev moderated the round table.

Discussions focused on the findings of the 2018 Munich Security Report, which includes research prepared by the Geneva Science-Policy Platform on Environment and Security. The report concludes that there is correlation between areas of drought and low-intensity conflict, among other findings.

Global security spending often results in massive investments to counter highly improbable threats to national security, participants heard. Yet “green” spending tackles a far greater threat to security and offers much better value for money.

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Existing legal regulations on environment and security and possible ways forward to scale up international commitments were also addressed in the presentations and discussions.

The side event followed the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between UN Environment and the Conference. This established a strategic partnership on issues related to environmental deterioration and global security.

Environmental change may not be as immediate or present as other factors driving insecurity. Yet it is no less essential to global security in the long-term, given the threats posed by environmental degradation and the way environmental protection can be a tool for peace.

Find out more about UN Environment’s work on the environmental causes and consequences of disasters and conflicts.

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