What They Left Behind: Leadership, Loss and the Gift of Purpose
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Those who lost their lives on flight ET302 left behind indelible and reverberating impressions of their drive, their passion and commitment.

With the loss of so many colleagues, those of us who were at UNEA-4 were forced to reexamine the premise of why we were in Nairobi, and what we had set out to do.

In the end, we all leave a long trail of footprints; it is our choice if they are filled with plastic debris, chemical waste and disposable ambition or something more meaningful.

Was it merely a coincidence that the airport workers of Jomo Kenyatta International went on strike one hour after my plane landed in Nairobi to join the fourth UN Environment Assembly?

Many were stranded as the stand-off and tear gas ensued, but that was not the worst of it.

Four days later, flight ET302 fell from the sky, carrying 157 people from 33 different countries to their death.

Among them, Shikha Garg, 32, from India, a newlywed who had recently married a colleague in our India office. She was organizing an event with UN Environment and the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change.

Among them Victor Tsang, a young father who left an expecting wife and son, a close colleague to many in Nairobi, also organizing many of the core events planned for UNEA 4.

They, like many others on the plane, left behind a close web of family, friends, and loved ones, struggling to come to grips with the vacuum and loss following the crash.

But they also left behind indelible and reverberating impressions of their drive, their passion and commitment: memories and remembrance of what they stood for, what drove them and what filled their lives with purpose.

We could not have known this was coming as delegations poured in the week before, strike or no, and began negotiating resolutions aimed at strengthening our commitment and shared sense of purpose for bringing innovative solutions to the many pressing environmental challenges around us, most if not all of them the result of how we produce and consume.

Would it have changed anything if we had? I suspect so… the first days of negotiation were filled with exchanges that often bordered on the banal, more a display of wit and cunning then a real desire to understand positions and perspectives from different countries on the most pressing environmental issues of the day. More like rearranging the deck chairs than altering course with any sense of urgency.

This changed over the weekend, though few and least I were aware at first.

With the loss of so many colleagues, with our world turned upside down in an instant on Sunday, we were forced to reexamine the premise of why we were there in Nairobi, and what we had set out to do.

Though the negotiations dragged on, often deep into the night, I sensed a turning of the tide: less about ego and winning the argument, more about trying to find routes to consensus, avoiding the land mines and red lines of countries and people behind them miles away.

And though the outcomes may fall below what some would like to hear, countries came together and reached agreement on defining areas such single use plastics, mineral extraction, and many others underpinning how we consume and produce.

Some moments captured it well: the Minister from Costa Rica, stepping up in the leadership dialogue, said quite bluntly, I am going off script. I came here with prepared remarks, but I am leaving that behind because I have to say, the gulf between what we are negotiating in the resolutions and what ministers are saying in the dialogue is too big. His question: how can ministers speak so openly and passionately about their countries’ challenges and accomplishments in the dialogue, and yet, in the negotiations, block language that could inspire and rise to the challenge of the looming environmental tipping points?

Nowhere was this more clear than on the issue of the “safe operating space,” a concept introduced by Johan Rockstrom and colleagues around planetary boundaries, deepened by Kate Raworth who added in the concept of social floors.

It would seem fairly self-evident that collectively we are veering out of the safe operating space, in terms of CO2, biodiversity loss, resource use, and pollution. As if to underline this point, at UNEA 4 UN Environment team and partners even launched a new tool that tracks material footprints across 171 countries – with data from 25 years – to begin examining the “hotspots” of our production and consumption patterns.

But many countries could not agree to include this language in the resolutions, and so it was left behind.

This sense of disconnectedness, perhaps even irresponsibility, came into sharper relief on Friday, as hundreds of thousands of school children around the world skipped school and took to the streets to protest the paralysis and inaction in the face of an increasingly unstable climate.

A defining moment in the closing plenary came when Leyla Acarglu, 2016 Champion of the Earth, closed her remarks by saying, “No one should wait for their children to solve the problems that they themselves have created.”

Her comment reverberated around the hall and, in my mind, and lingered as the gavel came down to signal the approval of the many important, but perhaps insufficient, resolutions from this Assembly.

Leaving us to wonder what it is we leave behind when we are through. When we depart. When our time comes.

A litany of rubbish, plastic bottles, carbon footprints, and worse? Or the selfless acts of giving and sharing the bring warmth to families and communities? A combination of the two?

In the end, we all leave a long trail of footprints, disappearing into the past and pointing into the future.

Our choice if they are filled with plastic debris, chemical waste and disposable ambition or something more meaningful and truly worth remembering when we go.

Steven Stone is Chief of UN Environment’s Resources & Markets Branch (R&M). The opinions expressed here are personal and should not be considered as representing the views of the UN Environment Programme.


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