Mr. Elliott Harris, Director of the UNEP Office in New York, Speaks at Umass Boston about Environmental Leadership
On the eve of Earth Day, Mr. Elliott Harris, UN Assistant Secretary-General and Director of the New York Office of the UN Environment Programme, visited the University of Massachusetts Boston to speak about ‘Environmental Leadership Across Scales and Geographies: A Perspective from the United Nations.’. The event, organized by the Center for Governance and Sustainability, was attended by a group of about 30 participants including Dean Ira A. Jackson of the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, as well as students and faculty of the School for the Environment at UMass Boston.
In his speech, Mr. Harris drew some examples from individual leaders, local initiatives, national endeavors and global success stories to convey his profound optimism for the enhancement of global environmental governance in the time to come. In light of the fact that global environmental negotiations on a range of issues, notably climate change, have largely stalled, Mr. Harris’ speech was remarkable in the sense of keeping the hope for better environmental governance alight.
Mr. Harris also stressed that while environmental issues have often transcended borders, necessitating regional and global cooperation, consensus building for collective action has become increasingly problematic. Underlining the end of the nation state as the mere reference point in global actions, he emphasized the role of sub-state actors in environmental leadership, more so in countries facing onerous national/federal policymaking processes like the U.S. He underscored the fact that there still remains a glimmer of hope and a source for optimism with local governments, whose progressive environmental policies have outstripped federal government policy.
On what drives good environmental policymaking in individual nation states, he contended that neither global policy nor national wealth have been primarily responsible. He emphasized the actions of self-serving economic incentives of individual countries driven by impending needs for alternatives, and their particular natural resource endowments. The Small Island Developing States, which have been increasingly challenged by the rising costs of fossil fuels, have, for example, decided to gradually shift to renewable energy investment, which would undoubtedly have far-reaching environmental co-benefits. Similarly, the accelerated move by countries like Kenya that are endowed with renewable energy sources like geothermal to develop their potential would make such countries global leaders as their national projects would eventually have supra-national environmental benefits. In short, countries are adopting sound environmental policy increasingly because it is making more economic sense. Renewable energy investment is no more the domain of a few industrialized countries as was the case a few decades ago because currently developing countries are increasingly embracing it. The bottom line, he emphasized, is that such actions by countries, although primarily designed to serve economic self-interests, would lead to collective environmental benefits.
Such individual, sub-state and national efforts, he underlined, would complement the global-level collaboration, and cannot supplant it. He cautiously stressed the big conundrum around the current global environmental policymaking. On the one hand, the lack of global incentives notwithstanding, nation states are already showing encouraging voluntary efforts, while on the other, the nature and magnitude of most environmental problems spans natural boundaries and hence desperately necessitates global collaboration.
While the audience challenged his optimism on the grounds that individual actions would rather be competitive than cooperative, Mr. Harris maintained his pragmatic and optimistic view that such ‘selfish’ individual actions would eventually lead to some kind of global collaboration architecture. He related this point with the current climate change negotiations by cautioning against the imposition of any kind of binding deal on state parties. Instead, he held that voluntary commitments should form the basis for the global deal, which would encourage member states to act in terms of what is really doable and feasible according to their respective political and economic context.
Overall, Mr. Harris’ speech was educational and inspiring. It also seems to have been well received by the audience. The Center expressed its deep gratitude to Mr. Harris for his relentless commitment to travel to UMass Boston and share his insights with the campus community in general and the Global Governance and Human Security Doctoral Program in particular for two years in a row.