World Environment Day and an Interview with UNEP's Achim Steiner

Last week, Treehugger Writer Bonnie Hulkower interviewed Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nation's Environmental Programme (UNEP). Steiner was unanimously elected to his position in 2006, and is in the middle of serving a four year term. Mr. Steiner has managed 1,000 people in 42 countries, and is especially known for building partnerships between the private and public sectors. Working at the grassroots level as well as at the highest levels of international policy-making to address the interface between environmental sustainability, social equity, and economic development, Steiner stresses the need for a more intelligent economic system that considers the GDP generated by nature. A recession, Steiner firmly believes, is precisely when we should be even more focused on combating climate change, and on creating an inclusive green economy.

Most recently, Steiner has been focusing attention on marine dead zones resulting from fertilizer use, and has been heralding the importance of drip irrigation, indigenous knowledge, agricultural biodiversity, and yes, the coral chomping parrotfish.

Treehugger gained insight on how living in five continents truly gives one a diverse and international perspective, and was impressed by Steiner's admonition that developed countries "should shoulder their full responsibility for having used the atmosphere as a dustbin for some 200 years." Mr. Steiner also outlined suggestions for strategic government incentive programs, as well as a preview of the environmental topics he will be discussing on World Environment Day, June 5th.Treehugger (TH): You've lived many places--Brazil, Germany,
the U.S., Vietnam, South Africa, and now Kenya. How has living in those
diverse places shaped your vision for the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP)? How has it affected the way you run UNEP and ran the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)?

Steiner: It has shown me that no one country and no one culture has a monopoly of creative and transformational ideas. Indeed the diversity of thinking, of approaching a challenge from a novel perspective, is one of humanity's strengths that we need to harness and harvest far more.

TH: Food is on many people's minds right now. A few months ago, you warned, "if our modern agricultural systems focus only on maximizing production at the lowest
cost, agriculture will face a major crisis in 20 to 30 years time." How likely is this scenario? What are the best strategies to avert this danger?

Steiner: The current food crisis is predominantly one about prices rather than about supply. However, there could be a knee-jerk reaction to simply accelerate and intensify the farming methods of the 20th century.

This is unlikely to serve us well in the 21st century on a planet of 6.7 billion, shortly rising to nine billion. Why? Because in many countries in the past 50 years or so the emphasis has been almost exclusively on hiking up production at the expense of all else.

For example, the emergence of marine 'dead zones'—deoxygenated areas of sea in which fish and other marine life-forms have either died or fled—are in part linked with the misuse of artificial fertilizers.

We also seem to have lost the link between the importance of the natural world to crop and livestock production in the first place. Whether it be pollinators such as bees and bats or the beetles, worms and other humble life-forms that make soil fertile, we need to re-discover some fundamental and economically important truths—we need to re-discover an ecological balance.

Agriculture can also be needlessly wasteful. Around 80 percent of freshwater is used for irrigation—simple techniques like drip irrigation could dramatically cut this use.

Simply clearing more and more land for food and feed crops, and ratcheting up artificial fertilizer and pesticide use, will in the end damage, degrade, and ultimately undercut the life support systems that make agriculture possible in the first place.

Delivering more sustainable and more intelligently managed agriculture is going to depend on the circumstances of each community and country. But we need to look across a whole suite of issues, from subsidies and international trade, right down to the role of women, and indigenous and traditional knowledge which, like agricultural biodiversity, is being rapidly eroded.

Fundamentally, we need to learn to work with the natural world rather than against it if we are to maintain, let alone boost, food supplies over the coming decades.

TH: You once wrote an article for Vanity Fair about parrotfish. How
did you come to be fascinated by these fish and what can we learn from
them?

I learnt about parrotfish on a trip with my family to the Kenyan coast. I am not sure many people enjoying the white sandy beaches there make any connection to the parrotfish in the coastal waters. But these fish are the sand-makers—chomping through coral heads and passing the sandy substrates to the shoreline via their business end.

Nor do the airlines, tour operators and resort companies make a link between conserving the parrot fish and the multi-million dollar holiday businesses they collectively enjoy.

So I chose the parrotfish as a symbol of how we often fail to grasp the real economic importance of the natural world—even quite lowly creatures have an often quite critical if overlooked role.

You can make the same analogy across so many of our natural or nature-based assets. A tropical forest is for some merely a collection of trees worth more as logs and timber exports.

Only now are we grasping their true value in terms of the way these forests manage and modulate the climate water supplies and soil stabilization. They are the fonts of genetic material that will underpin new businesses and technologies in the 21st century.

These trees absorb the carbon emissions of the developed countries—a service that might be worth billions of dollars a year, if only we factored them into a more intelligent economic system that included the GDP generated by nature, and not just GDP based on making cars and clothes, or TVs and microwaves.

TH: How do you encourage countries to fight climate change while the
economic markets are in turmoil and the US is in a recession?

Steiner: Sir Nicholas Stern, on behalf of the UK Treasury, recently published a report estimating that unchecked, climate change will be equivalent to losing at least 5% of global GDP each year, now and forever. In other words, a failure to act will lead to a significant disruption of the global economy—the recessions of the past and the present will be as nothing to those of the future. Conversely, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by UNEP and the World Meteorological Organization, last year suggested that combating climate change may cost as little as 0.1 or 0.2 percent of global GDP a year over 30 years—the bargain of the century.

TH: The US pro-business group World Growth says: "quick action
on climate change would do more harm than good." You obviously don't
believe this, but how do you counter the nay-sayers?

Steiner: One of the biggest challenges in transforming the world towards a low carbon economy is the vested interests of some corporate players.

You only have to look at the humble light bulb. The old, massively energy inefficient bulb dates back almost two centuries. Suddenly, the compact fluorescent bulb is all the rage, and suddenly large corporations are switching production to the energy saving ones—it is about taking the lids off the eyes and catalyzing momentum.

So there will be losers—the businesses and companies who fail to see the writing on the wall—and there will be winners: the businesses being less energy intensive and more resource efficient, and the ones who research and develop green products and services, who will thrive.

We are already glimpsing a Green Economy—from the 300 financial institutions with $13 trillion of assets who are signatories to UNEP and the UN's Global Compact Principles for Responsible Investment, to the $160 billion boom in renewable energy transactions.

And it is not just in developed countries. Two of the biggest wind power companies are based in China and India respectively.

TH: You've said that businesses should spur governments to act on stopping global warming and that the private sector should show government the way forward? Why not the other way around?

Steiner: Governments are essential. They have to set the legal, fiscal, and policy landscape in which business and consumers can act and make sane and sensible choices. But governments can often be handicapped by short term political agendas.

What can empower governments is a sense that a majority of the private sector and the public want change—so business has an important role to play in steeling political resolve and steadying the political hand.

TH: You've said that the environment can be the common agenda and a
basis on which nations work together. Why didn't this happen in Bali?
How can we get nations to work together better? How do we bring
together rich and developing countries on how to reduce greenhouse
gases? What role does UNEP have?

Steiner: It did happen in Bali at the climate change convention meeting. Governments have agreed to a two years negotiation that should and must lead to a new climate agreement by the climate convention meeting in Copenhagen in late 2009.

It is critical however that developed countries—who are responsible for the lion's share of emissions historically and currently—shoulder their full responsibility for having used the atmosphere as a dustbin for some 200 years.

That responsibility also includes finding ways and means of transferring climate friendly technologies and finance to developing economies, and also finding support for poorer and least developing economies to climate-proof their economies in the face of the climate change already underway.

UNEP is playing its part in trying to build that confidence—by trying to expose the scientific realities of climate change via the IPCC and other fora, but also by emphasizing the opportunities that can arise from making a transition to more sustainable practices, including the real possibility of new and more sustainable jobs.

We are also working closely with key sectors globally, such as the buildings and construction industry, and demonstrating novel and creative market mechanisms that overcome perhaps out-dated and prejudicial views.

TH: What has made you focus on examining the postal sector's carbon footprint?
Steiner: There are some economic sectors that can make a disproportionate contribution to the climate change agenda. The world's post service is one such sector. According to conservative estimates, postal services worldwide employ over five million staff and use over 600,000 cars, vans, and trucks, and hundreds of aircraft, to deliver mail.

There are many other sectors too. There is increasing concern over emissions from shipping. Yet there may be perhaps less than a dozen big shipping companies responsible for perhaps 90 percent of the market.

TH: You've focused on not only the doom and gloom of the climate
crisis, but also on the idea that climate change also holds a message
that can empower people. How do you see this happening? What message
does the UNEP have?

Steiner: The science and reality of human-kind's impact on the planet, from over-harvesting of fish stocks to the rapid and rising loss of biodiversity, has become ever clearer over the past half century or so. The international community has responded, establishing bodies like UNEP, and treaties covering issues from the repair of the ozone layer to trade in hazardous wastes.

There are successes too--from cuts in pollution that causes acid rain in Europe and North America to global reductions in using ozone layer damaging chemicals. Yet the truth is that the overall scale of the response has failed to match the pace and magnitude of the challenge.

Climate change represents a challenge that recognizes no national boundaries or political outlook. It is a common challenge that touches every sector and every community on the globe. Yet, overcoming climate change also represents a real chance to do business differently on this planet, and a real opportunity to address a wide range of issues that remain unaddressed, including deforestation, and a suite of promises that remain unfulfilled—not least including support for developing economies.

TH: Can you tell us more about the Climate Neutral Network that UNEP
launched in February? How were these four countries selected and how
will they mobilize other nations?

Steiner: These countries selected us. They are ones that have pledged to become zero emission economies not just in terms of C02, but also in terms of the other greenhouse gases. That's why it is the 'Climate' rather than the 'Carbon' Neutral Network.

They are all interesting because they face different challenges. Norway's challenge is oil and gas production, whereas New Zealand's is perhaps livestock methane emissions.

Almost 100 percent of Iceland's electricity is generated by geothermal heat, but it has challenges in terms of transport, not least from its SUV market and its big fishing fleet.

We are especially delighted that Costa Rica is a part of this—a developing country with an ethos that is summed up by Roberto Dobles, Costa Rica's environment minister, when he says: "We are not part of the problem, but we will be part of the solution."

The Network aims to federate ideas and paths to neutrality via an exchange of projects and best practices. It is open to countries, companies, and cities, and soon organizations and individuals too, who are determined to reduce their emissions and are prepared to publish a strategy, with actions, to back this up.

TH: World Environment Day is just around the corner. What is your
message this year? Do you have any specific tips for how our readers
can make a difference as individuals?

Steiner: WED 2008 is about mobilizing grassroots action in the 18 months left to the crucial climate change convention meeting in Copenhagen in 2009. The theme is "Kick the C02 Habit."

In the main host country New Zealand, but also around the world, we will launch the UN Guide to Climate Neutrality. I can't give much away until June 5th, but we will outline how individuals in a developed country can more than halve their climate footprint by quite simple daily choices.

Let me give you just one for fitness fans. Jogging around the park rather than on an electric-powered treadmill will cut your daily emissions by 1 KG.

And what about toast for breakfast versus heating up a roll or a croissant in the oven? Watch this space on June 5th to learn how small, easy choices can allow almost everyone to Kick the C02 Habit!

Tags: Agriculture | United Nations