Q&A: The Case for Pushing a Green Economy

Ten months ago, Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Programme, left the Bali climate-change conference charged with optimism. With resounding agreement on a global effort to tamp down greenhouse-gas emissions, as well as solid growth figures from leading countries in the renewable energy sector, it seemed like a new, green economy was finally ready to take off. Then the other, real economy fell apart. In the scramble to pick up the pieces, many have pushed green initiatives off the table. Steiner, though, takes the long view. Following the presentation of the UNEP's Green Economy Initiative this week, he spoke with NEWSWEEK at the U.N. Plaza in New York about why the green economy is not a tradeoff; it's a solution.

NEWSWEEK: How will the green economy work?
Achim Steiner: The nexus between the environment and the economy is becoming evermore linked to each other. [The Green Economy Initiative is] looking at how you accelerate the transition from the old economy of the 20th century: very polluting, extractive in terms of getting resources from the planet, very weak on reinvesting in the planet's major ecosystems and maintaining the environment-infrastructure on the planet that provides us with water, clean air, productive soils, timber, fisheries. How do we actually value [these] services and products in our economic systems?

One of the important issues here is that [a green economy] is not just a middle-class or U.S.-European-Japan preoccupation, because the basic fact is we have about 1.3 billion people who live below the poverty line. These people need jobs in the future. And if you look at the main sectors in our economy today—the automotive industry, the steel industry—they only generate 4.5 to 5 million jobs. These are not the sectors that can bring massive new employment. So we need to look at renewable energy, energy efficiency, sustainable agriculture, restoration of ecosystems, management of forest and protected areas around the world as, in a sense, job generators.

How do we put a value on these services?
First, we measure the opportunity cost. Take the carbon example: we need to sequester carbon on our planet. We have natural processes through the forests, peatlands, wetlands, oceans. Over millions of years the planet has perfected a process of capturing and sequestering carbon. The world's protected areas, which cover roughly 11 percent of the planet's terrestrial surface, capture 15 percent of the world's carbon. Now, we've never looked at national parks in the context of carbon; if they provide that function, how do we provide more investment into expanding and maintaining these parks?

What ' s the role of the United Nations and policymakers?
[We] look at what kind of public-policy instruments are best suited to scale up and accelerate the green economy. We need to leverage the markets, because these kinds of transitions will not happen with public funding. They will happen because the market is given signals to invest in greener production technology, into a more diversified energy infrastructure. The price of carbon is critical: the economy can actually make a major innovation leap, if it believes that [a transition to low-carbon output] is now a firm decision. Then the private sector starts changing its product strategies, its investment strategies, innovation and R&D strategies. But as long as it doesn't know whether governments and societies are serious about this, they will hedge.

Is your message different for developed versus developing countries?
We actually believe that—particularly for developing countries—looking at these issues is more immediate. The issue of poverty is not going to be solved with the traditional instruments. If you look at a country like Kenya, to this day over 70 percent of the population does not have access to electricity and is waiting for the large utility-central-grid infrastructure to reach every village. The current model has, in the last 30 years, managed to connect less than a third of the population. What we are saying is, why not have a renewable energy revolution which can start at the village level, provide the financial incentives and the technological support to make the poorest of the poor into energy producers, and allow them to connect—to feed the national energy grid? In Kenya we have geothermal power. An economy like Iceland, which has major aluminum smelters, is 98 percent reliant on geothermal energy. So the technology is there, it's economically viable—why shouldn't a country like Kenya jump an energy generation and move straight into geothermal?

You also call the initiative the green New Deal. So the green economy can be the antidote to financial depression?
We have just allocated possibly up to $2 trillion to stabilize a short-term crisis in the financial market; potentially depriving us of the resources to deal with the food, the energy and the climate-change crisis. We must bring these together—we need joined-up thinking. Let us also leverage these resources to accelerate the transition toward a greener economy with all this capital that banks are now being given to underwrite their capacity to lend. We need to maintain employment, we need to give economic stimulus packages. Why not use these to massively expand renewable energy and also invest at the household level in energy efficiency measures? We can have thousands and thousands of jobs, short-term, to reduce the carbon footprint of our housing and urban infrastructure. The idea is not to create an alternative utopia; it's not all about ideology. There are some people who want to turn the notion of the green economy into an ideology; some think it's an anti-capitalist proposition. The green economy is pragmatic, sound economics.

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