NAIROBI, KENYA—2009 was set to be a crucial year for the environment. World leaders and environment ministers will gather in Copenhagen in December to discuss a successor to the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. The global economic crisis has changed everything. With trillions of dollars being spent on bank bailouts and stimulus packages around the world, environmentalists fear little money will be left by the time the Copenhagen summit begins. For Achim Steiner, the executive director of the U.N. Environment Programme, the global recession is an opportunity. He has called for a global green new deal, outlining a plan to spend 1 percent of the world's GDP—around $750 billion—on renewable energy, sustainable transport and agriculture and energy efficiency. He is convinced that it will revive the global economy and fight climate change. Leaders at the G20 summit in London promised to "accelerate the transition to a green economy" but fell short of endorsing Steiner's ambitious plan. Steiner spoke with NEWSWEEK's Steve Bloomfield from his Nairobi headquarters about his plan. (Article continued below...)
What are your impressions of the deal signed in London?
It's not a breakthrough, but it is better than if it had all been about the IMF [International Monetary Fund], the World Bank and bailouts. It's a positive signal that the G20 has taken on the issues of the low carbon economy, the green economy and climate change. The question now is will the stimulus be used to invest in the green economy or will it go back to reinforce the old economy? Up until now we have been throwing a lot of this money at the economy of yesterday when we have the opportunity to invest in the economy of tomorrow. It is time for a global green new deal.
What would you like to see world leaders do in response to the economic crisis?
We have an enormous opportunity. Massive amounts of funding are being provided to help financial sectors out of a real problem but we are not using that money in a way that will help us deal with what comes after we are out of the crisis.
How can you be so sure it would work?
What we are describing here is not theory. It is thousands of pieces of a green economy which have been emerging in economies over the last one or two decades. We have the evidence.
Give us some examples.
How can an economy like Germany's have achieved a 15 percent renewable electricity supply in less than a decade if it was impossible to do so? It introduced a law which triggered a technology boom, an investment boom and a market for renewable energy which has given Germany this phenomenal increase in windpower.
How has Brazil managed to establish an ethanol economy?
Almost every engine used in a car produced in Brazil today is engineered to run on ethanol and petrol because government set directions for the economy and for the corporate sector that gave them parameters. The number of jobs you are talking about is not in theory.
Carmakers would argue the jobs they can save are not in theory either.
The political agenda at the moment is determined by the major actors in the economy. They are the companies and sectors that have established themselves as mainstays of the economy.
Yes, we can just give $20 billion to a car company or $80 billion to an insurance company that will be partly paid out in bonuses. Or we can direct some of that money to sectors where we can create—in the short term—hundreds of thousands if not millions of new jobs.
There are enormous long-term benefits too. It doesn't take much intelligence to realize that if you have a massive program of investing in energy efficiency in buildings you also reduce the energy consumption of an economy and its dependence on outside energy supplies.
What are the potential barriers to a global deal?
The old economy is trying its hardest to slow down that momentum. Even the CEO of the most polluting company today would not question climate change as a phenomenon. But this debate—can we afford this, can we manage this?—does not help. It is creating uncertainty and reluctance from political leaders. They have to face elections, they have to justify their actions in terms of jobs and economic growth.
This is the debate of our time. Who has the better recipe for ensuring long-term economic growth and jobs? Is it the major players who dominate the economic paradigm of today and yesterday or is it the emerging economy we see happening everywhere now?
Most major economies have now introduced stimulus packages. Do you think any of them are green enough?
Quite clearly in the White House we have a fundamental shift in policy. It is a major step in the right direction. In China you have $80 billion to $140 billion of the stimulus package directed towards a broader agenda of a green new deal. Korea has allocated 3 percent of its GDP towards a green new deal in its country. It is probably leading that effort right now.
I'm afraid some of the European stimulus packages are still relatively vague on the criteria that would create a green new deal dimension. Leadership now cannot be in rhetorical terms. We are down to the wire.
Some of your critics argue that UNEP is little more than a talking shop. What difference do you think it has actually made?
UNEP brings science to decisionmaking. Twenty-five years ago, with the World Meteorological Organization, we established the IPCC [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change], the authority which has now given us the reference point for responding to climate change. At the time some people laughed at the idea. Today it has the Nobel Peace Prize. We also established the U.N. framework convention on climate change which has become the platform for bringing 190 plus nations together to act collectively on climate change.
UNEP has faced some criticism in Kenya because many of your staff drive around Nairobi in gas-guzzling 4x4s. Do you really practice what you preach?
Personally I think Kenyans are far more worried about how relevant UNEP can be to some of its national development challenges. I think the worry of what cars our staff members drive is more the preoccupation of those who have time to sit by the roadside and count them, to be frank. The road system here is terrible. Accidents are frequent. The fact that our staff don't buy Mini Coopers I can to some extent understand.
I can assure you there are dozens of people here who would buy hybrid vehicles. But why is it that car companies do not sell hybrid technology vehicles in most parts of Africa? They shouldn't always put Africa last. I have been waiting for three years to order a hybrid car that I can service here.