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Mar 29, 2018
by Oscar Tollast
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Niall O'Connor - We're Seeing a Bigger Impact on Natural Resources

Director of SEI's Asia Centre discusses business as "unusual" approach and rewarding people taking positions on long-term sustainability Niall O'Connor presenting at Salzburg Global Seminar

“Everything we work at is to try and get the right research to support people and to support the environment to be sustainable,” remarks Niall O’Connor, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Asia Centre. O’Connor is speaking during a break at the Salzburg Global Seminar session, The Asia We Want: Building Community Through Regional Cooperation I - A Clean and Green Asia. O’Connor is acting as one of several facilitators for the session, offering advice to leaders stemming from ASEAN +3 and India.

Speaking earlier, O’Connor says, “Given that I’m now kind of overseeing the development of the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) in Asia it is interesting for me to hear what other people think the vision for the future is - what is it that they want to achieve?” Without knowing what people living in Asia want, he can’t direct where his organization should be heading. “There’s a good opportunity here of meeting people from maybe 10 [or] 11 countries,” he continues. “We’re all experts in our field. We're all working at various institutions… I have an opportunity to grow a bigger network and reach out to people, so that’s kind of an interesting opportunity for me.”

At the time of recording, O’Connor has been in his role at SEI for around a year and a half.  He had spent the previous 15 years in senior leadership and management positions in Western, Eastern and Southern Africa. He has worked for the likes of Concern Universal, WWF, and the government of Gambia. His experience has enabled him to view frustrations from the perspective of a researcher, developer, and implementer. He asks, “How do you get all of the development initiatives right? How do you get all of the environmental initiatives right? How do you get the right data and information to implement properly? I kind of went full circle and said, let’s go back to the research side. With SEI, the beauty of it is even though it says environmental institute, it is an environment and development institute.” In short: O’Connor is absorbing knowledge with the intention of being able to push back toward implementing and developing changes.

When asked for his thoughts on the main environmental challenges specific to Asia, O’Connor says, “The population explosion that’s happened over the last 20, 30, [or] 40 years is causing huge pressures on natural resources. In many cases, you can probably find ways around that, but couple that with levels of mismanagement, with corruption, with poor political leaders and institutions driving sustaining economies, sustainable business, sustainable environment, sustainable whatever form you want to look at. We’re not seeing a solution; we’re seeing a deepening of the problems. We’re seeing a bigger impact on all natural resources, less respect for the environment over a greater need to drive economic profit. While that’s bringing people out of poverty, it is fundamentally knocking away the foundations for long-term sustainability.”

This is the biggest challenge in O’Connor’s eyes. How do you recreate solid foundations on which sustainable economies can be built? We can no longer have a “business as usual” approach. He says, “What’s unusual is working with businesses to make sure that they fully understand the issues of sustainability and that business is linked then to the Sustainable Development Goals, that business has seen that the bottom line is not necessarily your investment.” O’Connor suggests challenging the financial set-up of business industries. In quarterly reports, sustainability could be seen as much of an achievement as profitability. He adds, “Change the paradigm, change the approach, and make sure that we actually credit people for taking positions on long-term sustainability.”

In and among the discussions at Salzburg, O’Connor has recognized the diverse pool of participants who have brought experience from the public, private and civil society sectors. He says, “Everybody else that’s here has similar experiences they may have and may have been able to overcome them, or they may have solutions. I think that peer-to-peer [networking] is going to be very important, but it also takes people out of the context for a little bit out of their own working day. It gives then just a blue sky thinking approach, which I think is quite useful.”

Niall O'Connor was a facilitator at The Asia We Want: Building Community Through Regional Cooperation I - A Clean and Green Asia, the first session of a new multi-year series held in partnership with the Japan Foundation. For more information on the session, please click here. To keep up to date with the conversations taking place during the session on social media, follow #SGSasia.

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