Turning the planet's environmental fortunes around is achievable if businesses, politicians, and citizens work towards a common goal, with the biggest polluters picking up the bill, said the United Nations' environment chief.
Highlighting the dramatic progress made by China and India, Erik Solheim, executive director of UN Environment, urged governments to take a joined-up approach to going green.
“The profit of destroying nature or polluting the planet is nearly always privatized, while the costs of polluting the planet or the cost of destroying ecosystems is nearly always socialized,” he told an international conference on sustainable development at New York's Columbia University on Monday.
“That cannot continue," he said. "Anyone who pollutes, anyone who destroys nature must pay the cost for that destruction or that pollution.”
There has been a “decoupling” of economic development and environmental degradation in many countries, but the World Health Organization now links a quarter of all deaths to pollution which contributes to cancer, heart attacks, and respiratory problems, said Mr. Solheim.
Emphasizing the role of businesses in developing new technologies to address the most pressing needs, Solheim pointed to the explosive growth of companies such as bike-sharing firm Mobike in China.
Meanwhile, the country is rapidly rolling out urban metro systems and a vast high-speed rail network to solve its transport challenge.
The dramatic slide in the cost of solar power is bringing health as well as environmental benefits around the world, Solheim added, while clean energy and technology are helping generate jobs and economic growth in countries like India.
“Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi realized he can electrify the villages and provide any number of green jobs – he can provide high economic growth, he can take care of his people, and take care of the planet by the same policies,” said Solheim.
While reaching the UN environment agency's target of a "pollution-free planet" is achievable, action must be stepped up towards meeting that goal, said Solheim.
“Change is happening," he said. "Economic-wise, we are on the right track, but we need to speed up because the challenge is so big.”
This story was reported by Thomson Reuters Foundation.