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UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: "Our Planet Is on the Tipping Point"

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Published in Metro www.metro.lu in April.

Jonas Kaufmann, the world's leading tenor, was practicing in the hotel suite next to Ban Ki-moon's. The opera arias lent an upbeat note to the UN secretary-general's otherwise glum day: the UN secretary-general has Syria on his mind. In an exclusive interview, he met Metro to talk about Syria, energy and the future of humankind.

Are we getting closer to peace in Syria?
I believe so. The Syrian government should fully implement the agreement. I'm deeply concerned Syrian forces have been shelling Homs and other areas. This must stop. The United Nations is helping Kofi Annan, our special envoy, by providing political and logistical support. At the same time I'm urging opposition forces to fully cooperate. Let the political dialogue continue. The Syrian people have suffered too much, too long. More than 9,000 lives have been lost. How many more lives do we have to lose? Humanitarian support is another priority. Tens of thousands of others have fled to neighboring countries -- over 25,000 to Turkey, others to Lebanon, tens of thousands to Jordan.

Should President Assad allow humanitarian aid into Syria?
Yes. Humanitarian access should be established as soon as possible. The international community, led by the UN, is ready to mobilize. We're already providing urgent humanitarian assistance through the Syrian Red Crescent society. But that's not enough. We have to have full-scale humanitarian support. And the whole world is watching Syria with skeptical eyes. President Assad has broken promises before. I know that he's also frustrated, but the onus is on the Syrian government to make the cease-fire hold. That requires restraint.

The man on the street says, if the UN can't even stop the slaughter of thousands of civilians in Syria, what's it good for? What's your answer?
We've been monitoring this crisis since last year, and of course been paying close attention since the beginning of the Arab Spring. I've been speaking out, and I've been advising world leaders to listen to their people attentively: what are people's challenges and aspirations? Some leaders have listened, and have benefited from it. Some, like President Assad, have not. That's why we've seen such a tragic loss of human lives. I'm very concerned about it. But we've been making big efforts together with the League of Arab States, and now have an observer team on the ground. Our task now is to prevent further loss of life, and that's what we're doing. Some may say it's too late, but so far the Syrian regime hasn't heeded to international calls. And the Security Council was not united, and so wasn't able to speak with one voice.

Your predecessor Boutros Boutros-Ghali famously called himself President of the World, but you have to plead with countries to get anything done. Do you feel powerful?
The office of Secretary-General is not like the office of a president or prime minister. Its power lies in the embodiment of universal values and the agreement of all nations to pursue those values. My role is to use the power I have to bring states, the private sector, civil society and normal citizens together to solve the world's problems. To succeed at this job you need to be able to listen, to persuade and to innovate.

We're meeting here in Brussels because you're launching a new energy partnership, which will provide energy to 500 million people in the developing world. Will that finally solve the third world's woes?
I launched the energy partnership, Energy For All, at the end of last year because I believe that lack of energy is an enormous threat to humanity. Providing energy is a way of addressing all the development problems we're facing: climate change, water scarcity, food crises and gender issues. Providing energy to developing countries is actually a way of cutting costs.

Why?
Without energy, can we solve any of our global problems? I'm very concerned about the fact that the world still has 1.4 billion people who lack electricity. And more than two billion people lack safe drinking water. Energy generates safe drinking water. So, my goal is that by 2030 we'll provide energy access to everybody around the world. And if I may be more ambitious, we'll double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix, and double energy efficiency. Without energy, life is undignified! Without energy we can't safe people dying from preventable diseases, we can't keep medicines refrigerated and doctors can't operate patients. That's why energy access is a top priority for me.

... and in June you and other world leaders will meet in Rio for the Rio+20 summit on the environment. Can you force them to finally do something about the environment?
This is the Rio summit on sustainable development, and as far as I'm concerned, it's a once-in-a-generation opportunity for humanity. Since 1992 we have consumed resources in the name of prosperity, and our planet is now on the tipping point. Unless we address this problem wisely and decisively we'll be in trouble. We're going to leave planet Earth to our grandchildren, and if we don't act now they'll be living in very difficult conditions. The timing of this summit is crucial. I'm working very hard with world leaders to make sure we'll achieve results, and also working very closely with President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, who is the host of the summit.

What kind of results?
First of all, climate change. And water scarcity issues. Again, there are 1.2 billion people who lack access to water, and two billion who lack access to safe drinking water. That causes so many diseases and health problems! Health issues, of course, are another area where we want to achieve results, as are urbanization and gender empowerment. And the oceans: how do we keep the world's oceans healthy? How do we prevent degradation of maritime environments? And we need to address these issues in a comprehensive way. My main vision for Rio+20 is, in fact, that we should look at the issues from a broad perspective, not one by one. I'm asking world leaders to show their political leadership and make sustainable development a priority. The Millennium Development Goals are fast approaching: we only have three years left until the 2015 deadline. Political leaders have to lend their political as well as financial support. The results of Rio+20 will have big effects on peace and stability. Remember that sustainable development alleviates tensions. For example, lack of water and environmental degradation create tension and mistrust because people compete for access.

To relax, Pope Benedict XVI plays the piano, while European Council President Herman Van Rompuy writes haikus. How do you relax?
I've been in public service for 41 years I haven't had a lot of time to relax -- especially since becoming Secretary-General. Even five minutes is hard to find! I'm grateful to my wife and children for supporting me, since I haven't been able to do much for the family. Last year I had several weekends off, and I tried to play golf with friends. Do you know what golf stands for? Green, oxygen, light, friendship. That's what I believe in! And it gives me energy. But I'm not a good golfer.

What's your handicap?
Somewhere around 20.