Two countries have halted their funding to the UN Environment programme following sharp criticism of its leader’s frequent flying in a draft internal audit.
The audit also said Erik Solheim, a former Norwegian environment minister, had “no regard for abiding by the set regulations and rules” and had claimed unjustified expenses. Now, Denmark and Sweden have frozen their funding until the audit is finalised.
Concern over Solheim’s activities is also growing in Nairobi, where the UN Environment programme (Unep) is based, with the UN staff union there calling some of the findings in the draft audit “mind blowing”. A prominent climate scientist has also criticised Solheim’s globetrotting as “obscene CO2 hypocrisy”. Solheim spent $488,518 (£371,100) in 22 months and was travelling 80% of the time, according to the audit.
Solheim said he had already paid back money for instances of oversight and made changes where other rules had been broken. On the frozen funding, first reported by Norway’s Aftenposten newspaper, he said it was “completely natural” for countries to wait for a final audit before releasing funds.
Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) said it was withholding its 2018 contribution of about $1.6m to Unep. “The ministry is familiar with the criticism of Solheim’s travel activities,” an MFA spokeswoman told the Guardian. “We take this seriously. We are now awaiting the final audit report and its possible recommendations before we pay additional funds.”
Sweden’s International Development Agency (Sida) said they would not approve any new funding until all the issues raised had been resolved. “Sida takes all signals of misuse of funds very seriously,” a spokeswoman said.
Ole Jacob Sending, from the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs thinktank said he thought the freezing of funds was probably unprecedented. “There are many who don’t think Unep is functioning as it should, and that there are other means of promoting environmental issues that can be more effective,” Sending told Aftenposten. Some observers have praised Solheim for raising the profile of Unep.
A Unep spokesman said: “We do not comment on the contributions of individual member states. However, UN Environment takes great pride in its reputation as both an environmental authority and trusted steward to our donors. As always, we remain in close consultation with every member state to ensure concerns are urgently addressed and resolved.”
UN staff appear increasingly unhappy with Solheim’s leadership, claiming it is damaging Unep. A statement on Monday issued by Martin Njuhigu, president of the UN staff union in Nairobi, said: “The Union is deeply concerned … Some items mentioned in the report are mind blowing. They require serious attention.”
Prof Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist at the University of Manchester, UK, said deep and immediate cuts in global carbon emissions are needed to tackle climate change: “Despite this, there’s a cohort of climate glitterati for whom climate change is less a scientific and moral imperative, and more a vehicle for their own prosperity and prestige.”
The draft audit, leaked to the Guardian, was compiled by the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and said Solheim’s extensive travel was “contrary to the ethos of carbon emission reduction” and was a “reputation risk to the organization”. It will be finalised after responses from the individuals named.
Solheim said on Friday that he could not comment in detail on the audit until it was completed and published: “If any other mistakes are found, we will immediately correct them.” He said there was “excessive bureaucracy in the UN system” and that travelling was essential to his job: “Making good on our global agenda demands engagement with the world.”