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Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology Bhubaneswar

Poverty and climate change are key challenges for mankind today: Mr. Erik Solheim

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KIIT Knowledge Tree Lecture By Mr. Erik Solheim, Executive Director, UN Environment and Under-Secretary-General, UN

Good evening here to everybody!

I am so incredibly happy to be in KIIT and also in KISS. Both the institutions are remarkable. Let’s start with something little bit personal. My mother passed away earlier this year. She was 93 and I was speaking in her funeral. I felt that I needed to speak a lot about education because education meant so much to my mother. Education not just about getting a job and learning something, but it was about liberation – getting out into a new and better society. I think I have learnt that from my mother. The focus on education is so incredibly important.

It is remarkable that KIIT and KISS have 52,000 young people. KIIT is one of the most remarkable and prestigious universities in India. All thanks to one man, Dr. Achyuta Samanta. It is the result of power, belief and strength of one individual, who himself came from a very poor background. He wanted to do something for the society and education is the way to prosperity.

Let me start by celebrating another Indian hero – a young man in Mumbai. His name is Afroz Shah. A young lawyer practicing in the court of Mumbai one day stood in his apartment at the 10th floor overlooking the beaches of Mumbai. He looked down at the beach. And he saw the most horrible pollution that one can think of. Almost half a meter thick of plastic, piled up there over tens of years and nobody has done anything with it.

Afroz said to himself – I need to do something. This cannot continue; this is my beach, this is my city and this is my ocean. He started talking to his neighbour, who was 85 years old, and they started the beach clean up by picking plastic. Soon tens of people were involved in this and after sometimes it became hundreds. After some more time it became more than thousand people contributing their time in beach clean up on weekends. So parallel to what we are seeing here, one person starting it and then mobilizing enormous power of the people.

Then something very interesting happened. Mayor of Mumbai came, State Ministers, Chief Ministers, private sector and businesses also came. Finally, Prime Minister Modi, the strongest Prime Minister of India in many many years, came forward. Now this model is being replicated in many other States.

We are now at a point in human history when we are pushing too much plastic into the oceans. At this rate, by 2050 the weight of plastic in the oceans will be same as the weight of fish. This is very dangerous. This is dangerous to animals. Whales are eating the plastic. Sea birds are diving down and eating the plastic. Destroying the beaches is huge problem for tourism – people don’t want to come to polluted beaches. And at the end of the day, it is huge problem for us humans also. Because fish eats fragments of plastic from big plastic bags that we throw, we eat fish and the plastic gets into our body.

We need to change. Everyone should understand this. No one is supposed to be doing it. You won’t believe it, there is enormous amount of plastic in parts of the world where there are no humans. Up in the Arctic, close to the North Pole, no one is living there but still ‘n’ amount of plastic coming maybe from India, maybe from China, maybe from United States or maybe from Norway. No one knows. We need to change.

I take this plastic issue as one issue to illustrate the point that there is absolute need for humankind to find better ways for promoting prosperity, not destroying the nature and for us to work together – governments, citizens and industries – for finding solutions.

We are at a lucky time in human history. All of you are much better off than your parents. All your parents are much better off than the grandparents. Life expectancy is much better now. An average person born in India can expect to live upto 70. There has been tremendous, enormous progress. We have achieved fantastic progress in many areas.

But we have two huge challenges still facing humanity, which we need to resolve together. One is: Still 800 million humans, quite a few of them Indians, are living in extreme poverty and many more are living in poverty. That is one challenge, to bring everyone on board. Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations aims to bring every living human being out of extreme poverty by 2030. Is it possible? China are doing it. Korea have done it. Singapore have done it. Malaysia have done it. Vietnam will do it. I am absolutely confident that India can do this.

Another big challenge for humanity is: We have only one planet. There is no planet ‘B’. We are stuck with this planet. Fortunately, this is a fantastic, beautiful planet – blue in the oceans, green in the forests, red in the deserts. We all know the enormous beauty of this planet that God gave us. We need to protect this planet. We as a generation should bring this planet in a better condition to the next generation. And there are problems.

Climate change is a big problem and Odisha is at the centre of that. Odisha is prone to cyclones. Odisha has long coastline vulnerable to sea level rise. Odisha is an agricultural State which faces both droughts and flooding. Odisha is very vulnerable to climate change. There is a very clear mandate that we need to act on climate change. At the same time, we need to protect the forests, all the beauties of the land, all the species, all the vulnerable animals.

So these two great commandments – bring everyone out of poverty and protect the planet – that’s the challenge for all of you, that’s the challenge for our generation. Can it be done?

Bad news is that the challenges are big. And the good news is that for the first time in human history we know how to do it. We know how to develop. China has developed at a very fast speed. Before that Korea, Singapore, many other Asian nations have developed. China has put hundreds and millions of people out of poverty – 600 millions – in the last two decades. We also know what policies help when it comes to combine prosperity and development. What are these policies?

Let me focus on three areas. Energy is key for prosperity and key for environment. More than 50% of climate change comes from energy. Providing electricity, but doing it in an environment friendly way is the need. The good news is that for the first time in human history, it can be done. The price of solar energy has come down at a speed never thought of before. Thanks to India and thanks to China, now solar energy is available everywhere at a price cheaper than coal. The airport in Kochi in Kerala is fuelled by solar, States of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Odisha are rapidly moving into solar energy. So we can do it by solar, by wind, by hydro, by biofuels and many other renewable energies. So we can prosper and protect the environment at the same time. 

Second is forest. Twenty percent of climate conditions come from forest degradation. Forest is the key if you want to protect the living planet. Protecting forests is the key for climate change, key for biodiversity and key for checking pollution. So let’s take care of the forests. Good news is, of course, that it happens. Brazil has reduced the deforestation rate by 70%. Odisha is greening. Costa Rica has excellent tree cover. There are ‘n’ number of success stories on protecting the forests and re-planting where there have been destruction of forests.

Third, transportation. Indian cities are very polluted. Some of the biggest Indian cities are among the most polluted on the planet. That’s dangerous. Because, pollution is one of the biggest killer of humans – 7 million people are killed by pollution. We need to reduce pollution. Good news is that we know how to do it. India can learn from China in providing more efficient and faster public transport system through metro revolution.

People are curious of the consequences about United States of America withdrawing from Paris agreement. The good news is that the consequences are much much less than you tend to think. No nation in the world has followed the United States. In all likelihood, the United States will abide by the Paris agreement – not because of the President, but because of the private sector business. Leadership will be provided by India and China and, in United States, leadership will be provided by the private sector.

Thank you!

It is remarkable that KIIT and KISS have 52,000 young people. KIIT is one of the most remarkable and prestigious universities in India. All thanks to one man, Dr. Achyuta Samanta. It is the result of power, belief and strength of one individual, who himself came from a very poor background. He wanted to do something for the society and education is the way to prosperity.

 

We have two huge challenges still facing humanity. First, still 800 million humans, quite a few of them Indians, are living in extre