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U.N. environment chief resigns after audit

U.N. Environment chief Erik Solheim resigned after an internal audit found he spent almost a half-million dollars on nearly constant world travel.

NAIROBI, Kenya (AN) — U.N. Environment chief Erik Solheim resigned after an internal audit found he spent almost a half-million dollars on nearly constant world travel.

Aside from the money and time, the image of a jet-setting executive director leading the United Nations agency that says it "sets the global environmental agenda" made for poor optics at minimum. More substantially, it contradicted the U.N.'s key message that the world is in dire need of cutting down on fossil fuel burning that causes climate change.

The U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services said the draft audit of his "official travel" while at UNEP would be released publicly on December 20. It showed Solheim traveled 529 of the 668 audited days at a cost of US$488,518, The Guardian newspaper reported.

Solheim, a former Norwegian environment minister, took over Nairobi-based U.N. Environment in 2016. He said that he had submitted his resignation as executive director "after deep reflection and in consultation" with U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, and that it would become effective on November 22.

"It is my most sincere hope that this proves to be in the best interest of U.N. Environment and the wider U.N.," Solheim said in a statement.

U.N. Environment's deputy executive director, Joyce Msuya of Tanzania, has been told to take over as the acting chief while Guterres, in consultation with U.N. member nations, recruits a permanent replacement, the U.N. secretary-general's office told reporters.

Despite the audit findings, Guterres expressed gratitude for Solheim's service and welcomed the agency's effort to implement the recommendations of OIOS auditors.

Guterres said he recognized Solheim was "a leading voice in drawing the world’s attention to critical environmental challenges, including plastics pollution and circularity; climate action; the rights of environmental defenders; biodiversity; and environmental security."

Erik Solheim (Arete/Knut-Erik Mikalsen)

Unapologetic frequent flier

An August interview with Solheim, published by Knut-Erik Mikalsen's Norwegian website, said in its headline that Norwegians need not have a bad conscience when they fly. The article carried a photo of Solheim grinning widely, a model airplane held out in one hand.

"No, it does not solve anything," he was quoted as saying. "I know that many environmentalists believe in giving people a bad conscience. I believe in inspiration to do things better."

Some of UNEP's donors did not share his sentiments. In September, two Scandinavian countries, Denmark and Sweden, froze their funding for the international organization until the audit was done, as was first reported by Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper.

That occurred after the draft internal audit had leaked to the U.K.'s Guardian newspaper, which reported that the audit had found Solheim showed "no regard for abiding by the set regulations and rules" on official travel.

British professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of University of Manchester's Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, called Solheim's travel habits "obscene CO2 hypocrisy" while heading a global organization promoting efforts to cut carbon emissions.

Solheim said he reimbursed the agency for some flights. But Martin Njuhigu, president of the U.N.'s Nairobi Staff Union, said union members remained "deeply concerned" and "some items mentioned in the report are mind-blowing. They require serious attention.”

In September, Solheim described himself as a relentless optimist in a videotaped interview with NPR journalist Ray Suarez for Washington-based World Affairs Institute.

"The more you can highlight successes of others, and building up of them, then the better you will be able to work together," he said when asked how news media might reconcile views on climate change. "If we all work together, we can basically solve all problems."