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UN environment head resigns over $500,000 travel expenses

People - Erik Solheim © Unep

The head of the UN's Environment Programme has resigned following findings by an internal investigation that he spent almost $500,000 on travel and hotels during a 22-month period.

A draft audit of official travel carried out by staff at Unep, obtained by The Guardian newspaper and seen by Chemical Watch, found that the organisation's former executive director Erik Solheim ran up costs of $488,518 while travelling for 529 out of 668 days – amounting to almost 80% of his time.

The report, by the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services, also found widespread rule breaking and a lack of accountability, during the period of its investigation, January 2016 to March 2018. Between 2014 and 2017 travel costs in the organisation almost doubled from $14.6m to $27.2m.

And the report warns that such extensive travel, particularly by air, "presents a reputation risk to the organisation, especially that Unep is supposed to be the lead on sustainable environmental matters".

The final audit report has yet to be made public, but on receiving an advance copy of it, Mr Solheim said in a 20 November statement he had decided to step down "with a heavy heart".

The executive director, a Norwegian diplomat and former politician, took up his position in 2016, succeeding Achim Steiner. During his period in office he has recognised the importance of regulating chemicals.

At a meeting of the intersessional process on the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (Saicm) in February last year, Mr Solheim said that to speed up the elimination of unwanted chemicals globally, governments must challenge businesses through regulation.

Speaking to Chemical Watch at the event in Brazil, he said regulating markets would "mobilise the enormous forces of business" and encourage the development of better, safer chemicals and products.

Last November, Mr Solheim laid out measures to address hazardous substances in his report Towards a pollution-free planet, which highlighted chemicals of concern as a "hard-hitting" target.

UN Secretary General António Guterres confirmed he had accepted Mr Solheim's resignation, which will be effective from 22 November. He also announced that Joyce Msuya, the organisation’s deputy executive director, would take over in an acting role while a successor is sought.

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