Hyderabad: Achim Steiner, 51, who heads the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as its executive director, says developing economies are taking the lead in environmental conservation, while explaining the “frustratingly slow progress” of climate negotiations.
Steiner was in the city for the XI Conference of Parties Convention on Biological Diversity, where hectic negotiations were on among representatives from 77 countries. The Brazilian-born German, an expert on environmental politics, is in his second term at the office after being unanimously elected by the UN General Assembly in March 2006.
In an interview on the sidelines of the event, Steiner spoke about climate change, green economy, the importance of the Doha conference in November and financial resource mobilization, among other things. “The impact of global warming on our planet, economies and societies is potentially deeply disruptive,” he said. Edited excerpts:
Saving biodiversity, mitigating climate change, reducing carbon emissions, do you think we woke up late?
I think the world has taken a long time to appreciate the full implications of what the 20th century of economic development in terms of the industrialization model has brought. But also the fact that we live in a planet of seven billion people, and soon nine billion people. These are changes that we have to confront today that are unprecedented in human history and, in that sense, yes, we have taken long, and in some aspects already too long to act. But the added challenge that we face today is that not only must we act as individual nations and communities, we are now bound to only succeed if we act collectively as an international community of very diverse national interests. That is why you see a frustratingly slow progress in some of the international negotiations because we are inventing a new way of doing things in a global, political and economic setting.
Countries are now aware of the implications of environmental damage, and yet action is lacking. What is the way forward?
Climate change has been a key catalyst in changing the understanding of political and economic leadership in most countries; that environmental change is not a phenomenon you can ignore. And if you ignore it, you increase the risk and you ignore it at your own peril. Another very important lesson is that we are beginning to throw out the myth of the 20th century that acting on environmental sustainability comes with the expense of economic progress and economic progress can only be achieved at the expense of environmental base, underpinning our economies.
Actually, we have shown in the green economy report that in many countries the opposite seems to be the case… Governments have seen that the economy is in fact often a beneficiary if you address the environmental risks. Thirdly, there are new markets and opportunities coming in this 21st century economy. Renewable energy today is a global marketplace that is increasingly dominated not by the traditional industrialized countries. It is, in fact, dominated by emerging economies as manufacturers and also investors.
The domestic markets of India and China are now key markets in the global expansion of renewable energy. India last year was the fastest growing clean energy market in the world… Last year, total investments in renewable energy were over $250 billion worldwide. This is more than some of the traditional fossil fuel sources combined. If economies in different parts of the world are able to generate 20-40% of their electricity with renewables, then surely this means we have broken through a threshold.
The climate change conference in Doha next month will be another tough round of negotiations, and funding is likely to take the centrestage, like in Hyderabad. Isn’t it bad timing that global environmental awareness seems to have come about when we are going through a major economic slowdown? How important is the Doha conference?
The financial crisis doesn’t help. Let us be very clear. When a country is stressed in terms of its budgets, the priorities of the day always take precedence. But we know that what is priority of the day may not always be the best priority in the long term and that is why we do have some tension at the moment... Some countries are moving faster. China had the largest green stimulus package in absolute numbers, Korea had the largest in percentage terms, in the US you had an unprecedented investment by US government in promoting renewable energy, energy efficiency, the same in Europe…
These are the intelligent combinations of short-term economic and financial needs and the long-term investments of economic policy and structure for any country to come out of this crisis, with an economy ready for the future rather than being trapped in the technology or markets of the past. We will, in Doha, hopefully see the final step in establishing the green climate fund, which will send a very significant signal…
Doha offers us a good chance to test that optimism, not in a sense of solving everything but in a sense of demonstrating that despite all the scepticism, countries know they need the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change to ultimately come to grips with the phenomenon of global warming.
Do you see the need for an alternative economic model to finance environment restoration?
I am cautious when we call for an alternative economic model because in the history of economic models, there has never been the perfect model... In that sense when UNEP introduced the green economy analysis we were not trying to impose a singular new economic theory. What we were trying to show is how different economic systems, whether centrally planned, capitalist or socialist or social market economy, the relation to economic progress and environmental sustainability dimension was subject to many failures and we have tried to illustrate how through reforming fiscal policy, subsidies policy, taking a technology proactive approach to the low carbon economy, introducing payment for ecosystem services, you start correcting for what are essentially massive market failures or massive failures in planning in centrally planned economies.
I think the compelling nature of the green economy report was it was not a singular economic theory, it was taking examples from dozens of countries across the world and demonstrating that you can correct for these mismanagement, these misallocation of resources and these failures in terms of public policy markets by targeting specific measures.
There are some sections that argue climate change is an evolutionary process and that it should take a natural course.
That is a very fatalistic view, of a process that we know will cause fundamental destruction on the planet. Even if you believe that it is a natural course you have no reason to simply sit back and wait for tomorrow. Let me assure you that people will be surprised in the next two years, when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) publishes its report because it will have to in a sense revisit some of its statements from the past but not in the direction that climate scepticism has tried to portray. The impact of global warming on our planet, economies, and societies is potentially deeply disruptive. Even if climate change might be only half the rational, it makes economic and development sense. To me, this is a kind of a hypothetical debate that is the luxury of arm-chair commentators.