Pollution as deadly as cancer, warns new UN environment chief

Around seven million people worldwide are dying from pollution – roughly the same number of people dying from cancer, says Erik Solheim, the new head of the UN’s environment agency.

Pollution, wars, conflicts, and migration – these are the key environmental issues facing the international community, Erik Solheim, the head of the United Nations environment agency, told journalists in Geneva this week.

Pollution is at the top of the list, killing around seven million people on the planet, more or less the same number of people dying from cancer.

According to the World Health Organization, environmental pollution and degradation can be linked to a growing list of health conditions including skin cancer, respiratory diseases such as lung cancer and asthma, lead poisoning, mercury poisoning and even malaria, Ebola and Zika.

The former Norwegian politician and diplomat also highlighted the “crossroads between environment and wars and conflicts and migration”.

According to the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), environmental degradation is leading to competition over scarce natural resources such as firewood, water and grazing land, fuelling friction and conflicts worldwide.

Climate change is also playing a role in exacerbating the factors that lead to conflict by forcing people into increasing poverty and displacement. The UNHCR estimates that since 2009, one person every second has been displaced by a disaster, with an average of 22.5 million people displaced by climate and weather-related events since 2008.

Solheim told journalists that his experience as a negotiator of the peace process in Sri Lanka between 1998 to 2005 taught him the importance of dialogue and compromise.

“In my view you should always try to talk even with political leaders as well as guerrilla leaders or terrorists leaders who do not seem to be amendable to compromise – let’s try talking,” he said.

Solheim was elected to the UNEP position on 13 May this year, succeeding Achim Steiner of Germany, who led the agency for the past 10 years.

 

Image credit: UN Photo/Pasqual Gorriz

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