The United Nations has said those responsible for pollution should foot the bill for the damage being wreaked on the planet.

The organisation’s environment chief, Erik Solheim, urged governments to take a more integrated approach to going green while ensuring those who “destroy nature” are held to account.

“The profit of destroying nature or polluting the planet is nearly always privatised, while the costs of polluting the planet or the cost of destroying ecosystems is nearly always socialised,” he told an international conference on sustainable development at New York’s Columbia University on Monday.

“That cannot continue,” he said, adding that the UN’s goal of a “pollution free planet” is achievable only if action is stepped up.

“Anyone who pollutes, anyone who destroys nature must pay the cost for that destruction or that pollution.”

Pointing to recent progress by China and India, Mr Solheim, the executive director of UN Environment, claimed the World Health Organisation is now linking a quarter of all deaths to pollution. Cancer, heart disease and respiratory problems are all believed to be linked to the poor quality air many people around the world are breathing in.

He stopped short of naming companies who he thought might be among the worst offenders preferring to stress the role of business in developing new technologies to help counter environmental damage, citing transport solutions as key.

Mr Soldheim said the dramatic fall in the cost of solar power is beginning to have an impact around the world, with clean energy and technology helping to generate jobs and economic growth in countries including India.

“Prime Minister [Narendra] Modi realised he can electrify the villages and provide any number of green jobs – he can provide high economic growth, he can take care of his people, and take care of the planet by the same policies.”

“Change is happening,” he said. “Economic-wise, we are on the right track, but we need to speed up because the challenge is so big.”