A champion of the green cause

The world's climate goals don't have to take a backseat during the financial crisis, says Achim Steiner, the UN's environment chief.

Masdar is an example of visionary planning for the future, says Achim Steiner. Andrew Henderson / The National
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This has been a month of environmental highs and lows. Last Sunday, representatives of nearly 200 nations meeting in Durban agreed to come up with a plan to fight climate change by 2015. The "Durban Platform" is meant to take the place of the Kyoto Protocol, the treaty among 37 nations to curb emissions that expires next year, and is more inclusive with the backing of the US and China.

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A day later, Canada became the first nation to withdraw from Kyoto, avoiding US$13.6 billion (Dh49.95bn) of penalties for failing to meet emissions-cutting targets and paving the way for other countries also to withdraw.

In the aftermath of the Durban conference, The National spoke to Achim Steiner, the executive director of the UN Environment Programme, who was visiting Abu Dhabi last week. Born in Brazil, educated in the UK and of German heritage, Mr Steiner is an advocate of green economies - and says they can take off even in today's sober financial climate.

Is Durban enough?

We need to in the next eight to nine years bring emissions down to 44 gigatonnes. That's 44 billion tonnes of carbon per annum. At the moment we're already at 50 and we're actually heading towards 56. So you can see that we're actually going in completely the wrong direction.

That is why science must be the determining factor of how we organise our economies, the kinds of political choices we make. What concerns me is when … people abdicate from their own responsibility, and that is putting the whole planet in peril.

Were you disappointed by the compromise in Durban and by Canada's decision to quit Kyoto?

No. In view of how of how many had talked down Durban and how many had already declared the climate change negotiating platform either paralysed or dead, I think Durban surprised them. In terms of what Durban started off from, you have to be pleasantly surprised. In terms of where we need to be with emissions reductions in the next seven to eight to nine years, Durban hasn't answered that question.

Given that some see emissions-cutting targets as a limitation to economic development, are these workable models?

If we continue to view climate change as a limitation on our future development model, then the discussion has to be a different one than the ones that are being conducted now. For a generation or two from now, it will seem rather pitiful that people argued about decoupling economic growth from emissions growth as a challenge, when the world will live in a 3 to 4 degree warming world where sea level will have risen by more than a metre.

To deal with those consequences, that is what is going to undermine development in the future.

What we are talking about today in many respects is decoupling economic growth from emissions. It's actually an opportunity also. There's enormous opportunities for new technologies, for new management approaches, for new kinds of mobility. And people constantly say: "Well it might add 5 or 10 per cent to the price of energy".

As an economist, I have to say this is a ludicrous argument in a period when we've seen the oil price more than double - sometimes in less that 24 months. And the economy has not come to a standstill.

What we need at the beginning of the 21st century is an efficiency drive in our economy. We need to pollute less, use resources more efficiently and essentially stop wasting and compromising future development opportunities.

Do we need a higher oil price to facilitate that movement?

I wouldn't put it quite as crudely as that, although clearly fossil fuel prices need to reflect more accurately the true cost that they're causing. When an airplane ticket on the weekend costs less than a taxi ride to the airport, people will hop on the plane. The question is who pays the cost for those emissions later on, because it is the taxpayer who has to pay for either adaptation or mitigation measures, not the person who travels.

What we are saying is, let the price of fuel reflect its true cost. And then the market in addition to that will bring in the scarcity issue. Is oil running out or gas becoming more expensive?

Right now, the cost of fuels in many parts of the world do not reflect their true cost to society.

How can governments do this in the financial crisis?

In practical terms, the governments, their ability to pre-finance some of these transitions is being challenged, whether from the point of view of the finance minister or the central banks.

That, in a sense, is a regrettable moment in time because we would have all wished that this is the moment when countries, governments and the private sector can really invest in these transitions. But in the financial crisis it is so much more difficult to achieve that. So yes, it will be a dampener. But I also think people are over-exaggerating it because the logic of this transition is ultimately so compelling that even through the financial crisis it will continue to evolve.

Can green economies work in oil-producing nations?

Not only can they, I think it is one of the greatest hopes of the economic boom that is currently driving the region, in terms of the revenue from having found oil and gas reserves being used to grow an economy for the future. I'm delighted that I'm in Abu Dhabi, where things such as Masdar are an example of how visionary planning for the future of these economies is beginning to be implemented.

Masdar as you mentioned is a big priority in Abu Dhabi. Recently though, it cut 9 per cent of its staff, and it is clear that the company has its own financial considerations, which may be part of the larger economic situation. So how can green economies grow in the kind of financial environment that we see today?

The remarkable thing is that key elements of the technology frontier of the green economy have survived the economic crisis much more resiliently than some of the traditional industries. Remember, the car industry in Europe and North America got billions [in] bailout packages. Banking systems that are supposed to make their own profits, generate their own businesses and also take their own risks have had to be bailed out with, again, hundreds of billions of dollars. Meanwhile, the renewable-energy sector in 2010 surpassed all records of history: more than US$210 billion [Dh771.33bn] in new investments in that sector, more than oil gas and coal combined.

So you can see that here is an example of how a new technology is now competitive and is being given a fair chance. Because let us remember: every year, the world has been subsidising fossil fuels by roughly $500bn to $600bn … And if you take all the subsidies around renewable energy technologies and energy efficiency in the world, they're roughly around $100bn, so one fifth of that. So even in this economic crisis, the sectors are in a sense thriving. But having said that, it is not surprising when the whole of Europe is in turmoil, when international financial markets are struggling, that also means that companies such as Masdar will have to make some cutbacks, because that is the economic climate in which we operate.

Investors may not be willing or feel secure enough to put a lot of money down based on what we've seen come out of Durban since the language will not be decided for another four years. Plus the solar industry has been hurting, with the case of Solyndra in the US filing for bankruptcy and the share price of some European solar panel makers falling. Can alternatives investment continue to grow?

First of all the markets are expanding very rapidly. One, because new technologies have become available, and secondly because policies are correcting for the past discrimination against them.

So there is no question that we are moving towards a low-carbon economy. Low-carbon technologies, low-carbon infrastructure will become much more important in order to manage that paradigm shift. And in that sense the green economy is not just an alternative universe, it's about how do we do everything we do today more efficiently with less pollution.

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