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NST Online » Focus
2008/12/27
Spotlight: Let science decide, not politics
By : ELIZABETH JOHN
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Despite all these economic arguments, national interests and political positions on climate change, the power of rigorous science made it possible to convince the public about the nature and scale of the climate change.
Despite all these economic arguments, national interests and political positions on climate change, the power of rigorous science made it possible to convince the public about the nature and scale of the climate change.

Running out of resources, choking on pollution and plagued by economic woes — time to rethink priorities and reconsider what really makes the world go round? The executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner, tells ELIZABETH JOHN that the time has come

Q: Could you tell us the significance of the recent international meeting in Putrajaya

A: We have a world full of biodiversity studies but in 2008 we are still confronted with unprecedented loss of biodiversity across the world.

We are losing ecosystems. We are facing the prospect of a collapse of fisheries in the oceans.

We have to scale up the capacity of governments to combat these trends.
This meeting discussed how we could strengthen the impact of science on policies of biodiversity and ecosystem management.

The idea here is to create som ething similar to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but for biodiversity.

The panel brought together all the science, peer reviewed it and it helped develop policy relevant findings that governments could use, giving them options to respond.

That is the debate in Putrajaya now. Will this kind of panel also be a good way to strengthen our ability to deal with the biodiversity and eco-system crises we are facing.

Q: What would you say to developing countries about this initiative, especially those that might see this attempt to link biodiversity to policy issues as a way to curtail development?

A: Biodiversity and ecosystems are essential to the economy and livelihoods of people in developing countries. In some cases more essential than they are to people in developed nations.

If you go to any farmer or fisherman who is observing environmental change and feeling its impact on his ability to harvest and use nature then very quickly that issue becomes secondary.

In 2008, we have to recognise that the loss of biodiversity globally and locally is beginning to take on dimensions that are no longer acceptable.

We are undermining the capacity of our own ecosystems to sustain not only current populations but also the billions more who will live on this planet in the future.

That is why we look at this discussion here as an attempt to bring both the developed and developing country perspectives together to say:

Let science inform the debate rather than politics and ideology.

Q: Although the climate change science came from a single, independent scientific authority, there were many questions and doubts. Wouldn't this system be faced with similar challenges?

A: Despite all these economic arguments, national interests and political positions on climate change, the power of rigorous science made it possible to convince the public about the nature and scale of the climate change challenge.

In turn, they empowered their politicians to act in a way that would have been unthinkable five years ago.

Because the public says things are serious, because they believe in the scientific evidence that is being presented to them, they ask the political leaders what they are doing about it?

And suddenly politicians are able to move and take actions that they didn't dare to before.

The direction we are heading in this 21st century is towards a low carbon, less polluting and more recycling economy.

Those that rely heavily on a 20th century industrialisation model will have to invest a lot more on transformation.

Those who come out with new products, processes and innovations stand to gain a lot more from this transformation.

Q: Will the developing world be able to move from oil dependence to a greener economy?

A: It's the same debate in a developed country as it is in a developing country.

If you listen to people who build cars today, who run steel mills and coal fired power stations, they'll say: We're going to lose jobs, we can't do this.

The same arguments are happening in Washington, Berlin and London as they are in Kuala Lumpur, New Delhi and Beijing.

Secondly, are developing countries going to invest their future in the old economy or the new economy?

Q: Could a country like Malaysia make that change?

A: Malaysia is already a knowledge economy. Why would it not take advantage of what is now quite clearly emerging as a global market opportunity -- renewable energy and recycling.

The winners in the future global marketplace will be the resource efficient, innovative, energy efficient product.

A country that does not invest domestically in promoting that transition will not have products, patents or research and development giving it a competitive advantage.

So it will buy the factories of yesterday and continue producing at a lower premium what others no longer want to produce.

China and India already do this -- if you want to take the developing country argument.

Suzlon and Suntech are companies that are both less than 10 years old.

They are dominators in the global marketplace today.

(India-born Suzlon is Asia's largest wind power company. Chinese owned Suntech is a leading global solar energy company)

Germany has just made the single largest investment in Mexico to produce photovoltaic panels there.

That investment could come to Malaysia too but not if there isn't a domestic market that supports that.

Q: But that's the thing isn't it? The whole economy, all the infrastructure isn't designed to support any of this, is it?

A: That can change.

The idea here is that government shouldn't do all of it but the market, investors, entrepreneurs have to believe that the government is committed to a long term transformational path.

Then they will mobilize their intellectual property, their capital and their corporate resources for this purpose.

Q: I'm sure many developing countries will be looking at this Green Economy Initiative and thinking that once again, they'll be starting from behind. It's going to involve a lot of technology we don't have and that's going to create a bit of fear, isn't it?

A: Because you are five years behind, will you stay that way forever? Or will you catch up?

If you take a company like Suntech, which is the world's largest producer of PV panels, its founder Dr Shi Zhengrong, was a lecturer in Australia up to eight years ago.

Then he came back to China and started this company.

So there is nothing to prevent entrepreneurs with government support in countries like Malaysia which already have that highly developed infrastructure, well trained human resources, vast experience in public policy, supported technology innovation programmes, to say: why don't we get into this?

If you're not part of this today, you are much less likely to be part of it tomorrow.

Now if India and China can do it, is there a reason why Malaysia cannot do it?

Q: Where's the motivation when you are an exporter of oil? What's the motivation for a country like Malaysia?

A: Responsible inter-generational leadership.

Oil will run out one day. This is what England is finding out right now, what Norway will find out, what Dubai and others have already factored into their development.

So how do you diversify your economy from what is in essence a lottery win - which is that you have found oil and gas and that has given a tremendous boost to your economy.

Rather than spending all that money, Malaysia is already making choices in terms of investing it in human resource development, infrastructure development.

These are benefits accruing not only to the current generation but future generations so in a sense it is a strategic choice.

Do you believe that this transition to a green economy is an opportunity to innovate, to access new markets and generate new jobs?

If you do, then you have a rational to invest in them.

Q: What help is there for countries that might want to make the transition but don't know how?

A: This is one of the problems. There is not enough.

For poor developing countries, making these quantum leaps are very difficult.

If you are a country like Kenya today , where the UNEP is headquartered, if you were to chose to jump one generation of energy production and move straight into solar energy or thermal power, initially the equipment you're buying off the shelf is more expensive.

And therefore every kilowatt hour of electricity is more expensive.

So I will suggest that the climate change convention and the financial mechanism that we have, be made available should a country want to buy down the difference between going on a path of high fossil fuels or more renewable energy.

If you can buy the difference down and bring that country forward by 20 years -- like South Africa that shifted from coal to more solar and wind -- why shouldn't the international community pay for that. It is in its own interest from a climate point of view and it is in the interest of helping a developing nation.

As the executive-director of UNEP it is very disconcerting for me to observe a world that can mobilise thousands of billions of dollars overnight for a financial crisis but is incapable of committing 100 billion dollars a year in additional financing to help the world achieve a scenario where global warming will stabilise.

But this is the challenge we face -- to bring the environmental imperative to act on the economic rationale of investment.

Q: What has the reception to the New Green Economy plan been like?

A: We have been overwhelmed by the interest and the extent to which this discussion has been going on all over the world.

We've seen initiatives in Korea, Britain and Costa Rica suddenly being driven under this concept.

We've seen (US president-elect) Barack Obama and the secretary-general of the United Nations taking on this subject.

The response has been tremendous also because of the fear that the money we're spending on the short term financial crisis must also be used on longer term challenges.

There is of course going to be a counter-reaction. The old economy or the economy that has very little interest in this transformation is going to raise objections.

They will say: We have the jobs and now you are going to put your money into all these phantom jobs?

That is why we are working on very hard empirical research with the International Labour Organisation, trade unions and employer federations, to put together our first jobs report.

We want to show where green jobs are being created, why are they being created and what is the potential for future growth.

Q: What impact will falling oil prices have on this plan to invest in a greener economy?

A: Well if you believe that climate change and global warming is a hoax then you should celebrate that oil is only US$60 per barrel.

If you even believe half of what we know is going to happen in the next 60-80 years, your first reaction should be: what a tremendous opportunity this is.

We were able to operate in our economy when oil was $100 per barrel, now its $60, let's use this $30-$40 dollars we have gained and invest it in a more diversified, cleaner-fuel economy instead of going back to putting our foot on the pedal and driving our cars faster.

The original assumption was that at $60 or $70 a barrel, solar and wind energy technology become perfectly competitive.

Now what did we see the big energy companies do?

They sold off their solar and wind energy businesses and as the Arctic was melting, began dreaming of drilling for oil there. This is not rational.

Q: Why is not rational?

A: Because it is a short term interest that accrues to a few people who are mortgaging the future of the next generation.

Can you explain to me, to my son and my grandsons why an oil company should today make billions in net profit which is two-thirds more than what we would need to spend as a global community on shifting away from global warming?

It's not as if oil companies are drilling in a more beautiful or intelligent or cleaner way. It's the same oil, from the same oil wells, in the same market.

And these companies can, in a sense, privatise a profit that we as a community, if we could use some of that, could finance the transition to a cleaner energy economy.

This disconnect in the marketplace versus the social and public goals of our economic development path need to be narrowed.

We need to step back from the virtual economy that allows a company to be worth $25 million dollars one evening and $5 million the next morning. That's not the real economy.

The real economy is rooted in assets including the environmental assets we hold.

One of the interesting transformations we'll see in the next century is that our economic choices will be defined by our natural capital rather than our financial capital.

Because these are real assets and if we lose them, we cannot afford to replace them with something artificial.

Q: Sure, but there are very immediate concerns a government has to address -- from keeping prices down to securing votes.

A: Well that's not new. That will always be the dilemma of a politician.

But we expect too much from our politicians. It actually comes down to you and me.

If we are well informed citizens, will we give our politicians the license to raid our larder or the license to use our profit to build a more sustainable future economic development path?

The politicians will act accordingly.

I think that is part of democracy. That is part of the public debate that happens.

That's why we at the UNEP belief that the debate about renewable energy, these are the debates we have to take to the public.

Because it is there that people form the opinions that then drive the political agenda and responses.

There will always be those who don't give a damn but as a society I don't think that is a prevailing notion

Q: What would be the cost of not taking this seriously? What would be the cost of leaving biodiversity out of the equation?

A: In the long term it's devastating. I'll give you some examples.

In the year 2008, we've actually reached a situation where we are depleting our fisheries stocks so fast that in our generation we may end up with no more global fisheries in our oceans.

The Millenium Ecosystem Assessment looked at 24 ecosystems goods and services and found that in the beginning of the 20th century reached a level where 60 percent of these are either used at maximum level or depleted.

With six billion people now and eight or nine billion people in the next 30-50 years, surely these trends are unsustainable.

We are producing in agriculture worldwide food crops that have already led to over 30 per cent of our arable soils being depleted and having lost their productive quality.

It will cost some more than others. The poor will be at the frontline of paying the price for land degredation, desertification, loss of wildlife and wild plants that they use for medicinal purposes.

Economies will lose tremendously because they will increasingly have to compensate for what is lost, with money and infrastructure.

And as we run out of alternatives to grab something from somewhere else we will suddenly realise the value of that biodiversity we lost.

 



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