Alain Boinet: We are happy to welcome Véronique Andrieux, the general director of WWF France. The WWF or WorldWide Fund for nature is an international non-governmental organisation created in 1961 working for the protection of the environment and sustainable development. To start of the interview, can you tell us the main priorities of WWF?
Véronique Andrieux: Our mission is threefold. The first is to warn about the climate and biodiversity crisis with the help of experts and through particularly salient reports, notably the “Living Planet” report. The second area is the protection and restoration of the living world, ecosystems and those who depend on them, particularly wildlife, but also local communities with sustainable management of natural resources. These are field projects, whether in Metropolitan France, in the overseas departments or in what are known as biodiversity hot spots such as the Congo Basin, the Mekong River, or Indonesia, Brazil and Madagascar. Finally, the third axis is transformation: acting on systemic transformations that are the structural causes of ecosystem losses and erosion of life. In this area, we work with the government, local authorities to change public policies, but also with companies and other private actors in the financial sector to transform their business plans.
AB: You previously held various position in humanitarian and development organisation. In what ways, based on your experience, do you see links between humanitarian, environmental and developmental work?
V.A.: I have been doing this work for about twenty-five years and witnessed the impacts of climate change on local people, especially when I went to the field. For example, in the Andes, more than 20 years ago, we were already seeing climate disruption on ocean currents and what it meant for the rainy season and crops. In Yemen and the Sahel, climate change is causing more frequent and longer droughts and a constant rise in temperatures which make some areas uninhabitable and/or can be a factor in tensions and conflicts for natural resources. Another example is the extractive industries, in Latin America which pollute the soil and water through their massive use of chemicals. In French Guyana, water pollution with mercury (banned by the Minalata Convention) leads to diseases in local communities. These are just few examples of unsustainable resource management that shows that putting the environment at the centre of human development programmes, and vice-versa, is the only suitable solution.
That is why, the triple-nexus climate-biodiversity-human development is at the heart of our actions at WWF, through adaptation and mitigation measures such as nature-based solution (protect ecosystems to address climate change, food insecurity, water supply…). In the face of the climate and biodiversity crisis and its devastating effects on human development and accelerating inequalities, it is essential to break out of silos and fragmented approaches. This dichotomy between development and environment cannot hold, since the environment is the essential foundation for human development. Studies show that 80% of the SDGs are threatened by the climate crisis.
A.B.: As you mentioned climate change, what action is WWF taking to tackle it? Are we in an emergency?
V.A.: Totally! We used to tell ourselves that issues linked to climate change and the deterioration of biodiversity were elsewhere: the situation in the Amazon is terrible but it is far from us, extreme temperatures in Pakistan and the Sahel, the rise of waters in various region is terrible, but again, it is far from us. Today, we can no longer ignore the problem or push it away, the climate issue is now and here! This is a slow onset crisis.
At the moment, in France, we are experiencing violent wildfires, heat waves, hail, and drought which clearly show that are in an emergency situation. For this reason, we not only need to reduce the factors that could cause those crises, but also act on adapting and preventing those situations. In some cases, the agenda is set around the loss and damage as our adaptation capabilities are limited and it becomes to late to save the situation.
At WWF, we propose solutions at the systemic and sectoral levels. There is a major problem of climate and biodiversity coherence in public policies. For example, France funds more subsidies for fossil fuels than for renewable energies. Continuing to direct public money towards climate-damaging subsidies rather than towards sustainable economic activities locks us into a carbon-based model and diverts resources that are essential for the transition. There is therefore a need to act on these systemic issues. WWF has proposed a “climate and biodiversity pass”, which would screen public policies and state budgets to ensure their compatibility with France’s and the European Union’s climate and biodiversity commitments. In addition, we propose sectoral measures for France in the areas of transport, agriculture, housing and energy. It is the entire software and matrix of production and consumption that must be radically and profoundly revised.
A.B.: The war in Ukraine completely shook the energy sector (hydrocarbons, gas) with the reopening of coal-fired power stations and with the revival of nuclear power as the only stable alternative. How do you analyse this situation and how to tackle it?
V.A.: For us, Ukraine has accelerated certain issues and could be a window of opportunity for certain fundamental transformations both in terms of energy and the food system.
As far as energy is concerned, and beyond the emergency measures that are absolutely necessary, it will be necessary to focus on the threefold approach: renewable energies, energy efficiency and sobriety. The government is working on an energy sobriety action plan. This is a good thing, as we will have to consume less (and not just this winter, but over the long term). At the same time, one of the major levers of energy efficiency should be tackled: a broad plan for the energy renovation of buildings (complete renovation of 700,000 homes/year in France). We must not forget that more than 12 million French people are in a situation of energy insecurity and that it is necessary to support them. In terms of renewable energies, France is the only European member state not to meet its commitments (19% vs. 23% target in 2020). In the framework of RePowerEU (the European Commission’s plan to make the European Union independent of Russian fossil fuels), some projects that are currently on hold could be unblocked. However, care must be taken not to forget the biodiversity and social criteria. For example, wind turbines should not be placed in Natura 2000 areas or in bird nesting or migration areas.
Regarding the food system, the main driver is to review our diet and reduce the consumption of animal proteins. We eat twice as much animal protein as recommended by the health authorities. We recommend replacing it with more vegetable proteins. 2/3 of the cereals consumed in Europe go into livestock feed and only 17% for human consumption; 60% of the land is used for animal feed production (with a low efficiency or conversion factor for some sectors). The hierarchy of land use must be reviewed and priority given to food production for the population.
We are faced with a contradiction when the European Union claims to be a food-producing power when in reality it has relocated a significant part of its ecological footprint to third countries and is the second largest importer of deforestation behind China. Products resulting from deforestation or the conversion of ecosystems are found in our food (indirectly, when the meat we eat has been fed with Brazilian soya from deforestation, for example) and in agrofuels. This is why WWF is pushing for binding legislation to ban the marketing of products derived from deforestation or ecosystem conversion in Europe.
A.B.: Another area on which the WWF is very committed is that of the protection of rivers. Faced with the consequences of climate change and the increase in water pollution due in particular to demographics but also to the development of lifestyles, what initiatives are you taking?
V.A.: On this question, we work on two complementary approaches: biodiversity and ecological footprint. On the biodiversity side, WWF created different initiatives such as “Free Flowing Rivers” for the renaturiation of risers and the dismantling of infrastructures including micro and small dams that ultimately provide very little energy, fragment rivers and prevent species from migrating. There is also work to restore wetlands, which act as a buffer areas in the event of flooding, thus protecting local communities. In France, WWF is working in Camargue and the Brenne region for years now.
As far as the ecological footprint is concerned, our societies have an extremely intensive agricultural model that consumes freshwater (agriculture uses 70% of the world’s available freshwater, mainly for irrigation). This is why, in view of the successive years of drought and the historic drought in France this year, it is crucial to move towards a much less water-intensive and therefore more sustainable agricultural model. Today, much of the water is used to irrigate cereals, the vast majority of which will be used to feed livestock, while populations and biodiversity are short of water. The position of livestock feed in land and water use will have to be reviewed, and priority given to uses and production for human populations.
A.B.: The Ukrainian war could lead to, using Antonio Guterres’s words, a “hurricane of hunger”. Isn’t it urgent, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, to set up a global plan?
V.A.: I don’t think there is one action that will solve the problem but rather a range of actions. Emergency measures such as those carried out by the WFP are crucial. In the medium/long term, we need to act on diets by reducing our consumption of animal proteins, reduce food waste, stop deforestation practices, return to more resilient endemic crops, and develop agroecology (increase the organic area, less pesticides and nitrogen fertilisers, crop diversification, etc.). With our monoculture system, we have destroyed the diversification of plants that exists in the world and that is absolutely necessary for agricultural resilience and sovereignty. The aim is therefore to reduce the dependence of African and Middle Eastern countries on Europe and to create a foundation of resilience in these countries. Rather than importing wheat, promote local and sustainable production of cassava, sorghum and millet flour – endemic crops, adapted to the environment and more resilient to water stress – as several African countries are already doing in response to the crisis. Investing in this sovereignty also means restoring the millions of hectares of degraded land.
A.B.: The Earth now has eight billion human beings and by 2050 the African population will have grown from 1.1 billion to 2.1 billion. How can we meet these demographic needs, dare we speak of a demographic explosion that could have an impact on the world situation, while acknowledging that the continent requires phenomenal development needs?
V.A.: This issue touches on the inequalities that arise from this climate crisis. Today, Africa is the continent that emits the least greenhouse gases and that suffers the greatest effects (along with parts of Asia) of climate change. We can therefore see inequalities between the different regions of the world on this subject. But beyond the inequalities between regions of the world, there is also the question of inequalities between types of population. If we take for example the global elites, on a planetary scale that is, their consumption patterns on 1% of the population represents 20% of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions since 1990. On the other hand, if we take 50% of the poorest population, they are only responsible for 16% of the growth in greenhouse gas emissions. So it is not just a demographic issue, it is above all a question of consumption patterns that must be rebalanced. There is a clear correlation between the level of wealth and the level of emissions. The question then is how can we ensure that the global elites make their lifestyles more sober? From my point of view, it’s more a question of how to ensure that these global elites, wherever they are, have a more responsible way of living and consuming, and that their roles and responsibilities at the societal level are also highlighted. And so in reality it’s not the population increase in Africa that is going to increase greenhouse gas emissions on its own. Studies show that the millions of people who have been lifted out of extreme poverty in recent decades have had little impact on the increase in GHG emissions (around 1%). A final question is how to make a strong Human Development Index compatible with a low carbon footprint, as is the case in Africa. I think that the richest countries have a responsibility to reduce the pressures they have on biodiversity hotspots and on the relocation of production. They must establish technology transfers in poor countries to avoid using fossil fuels when renewable energies are already available. There is also accountability to be made on financial actors, for the green taxonomy (the European Union’s classification of economic activities that are sustainable and compatible with the ecological transition) to be more respected and probably increased in a few years. Public and private financial institutions must also align their investment portfolios with the green taxonomy.
Finally, there is a need to address the issue of economic indicators: focusing on GDP as the largely dominant metric perpetuates the blind spot of nature’s value, leading to the ecological crisis we find ourselves in. It is essential to complement the inadequacy of GDP and other economic growth indicators with an ecological footprint indicator, such as the Day of Overshoot, which measures the carbon footprint, forests, agriculture, fisheries, etc. of human activity in global hectares.
A.B.: You have previously held several leadership positions in both humanitarian and environmental organisation. What key lessons and advice on governance and strategy can you draw from your experience?
V.A.: I would say that there is above all a direction to follow, and that we must not disperse ourselves. We must not lose the soul of the field and I personally think that one of the big risks of the different NGOs is bureaucratisation. When procedures multiply and become more sophisticated, this can become a brake on action on the ground, the localisation of aid and innovation.
I think it is important to preserve our DNA as a civil society, as activists, as social and environmental justice activists. We have the legitimacy of years of quality work in the most complex fields, tangible achievements and results, solid technical expertise, and action in the general interest. Our strength lies in our science-based and evidence-based knowledge over time. Focus on the quality of our programmes, to achieve impact and make a difference. We must rely on diversity, a plurality of views and backgrounds, agility, risk-taking and innovation to better navigate the more volatile, disruptive and uncertain contexts that now constitute our daily lives.
Finally, we need to facilitate the emergence of new types of leadership, based on values such as courage, care, self-awareness, humility, inclusion and power-sharing — in my view, more in tune with the aspirations of our sector and our time.
Alain Boinet: To end this interview, would you like to add anything?
Véronique Andrieux: We are becoming aware that the era of the “open bar” of natural resources is over. We will have to adapt very quickly to the era of scarcity, which is galloping in and becoming the new normal. Sobriety applies to energy, but also to water, forests, fisheries, and natural resources as a whole. This is the meaning of the Day of Exceeding which this year arrived on July 28th for the world and on May 5th for France. By increasing the ecological deficit every year for the past 50 years, we are putting ourselves in danger. It is urgent to integrate ecological footprint markers into the management of the country, the economy and agriculture.
Biographie de Véronique Andrieux
Véronique Andrieux is a specialist in international development.
She holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration from ESADE in Barcelona and postgraduate degrees in Development from the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris and in Public Policy from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) at the University of London. She was Regional Director for South America and the Caribbean and West Africa at Oxfam. Previously she was Senior Adviser on Development Policy at the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was also Senior Adviser at the Club de Madrid. She has had field responsibilities in Latin America, West and Central Africa and the Mediterranean. She has led several evaluation and planning processes and represented the Spanish government in various multilateral working groups on official development assistance. She then joined Action Against Hunger in 2016 as Executive Director. She has written various publications on international development, including: “Better Aid: A necessary condition for development”, “Contributions for a European Development Policy under the Spanish EU Presidency” and “Policy Coherence: an urgent agenda for Development”. Véronique has been Director General of WWF France since August 2019. The World Wide Fund for Nature, the world’s leading environmental protection organisation, has been working for 50 years to preserve natural environments and the most threatened animal and plant species, by striving to mobilise all stakeholders in society.