SciDev.Net speaks to UN Environment Programme executive director Achim Steiner at the Eye on Earth Summit (12-15 December) about next year's Rio+20.
Looking towards Rio+20, what are your expectations?
At the moment, Rio is an open invitation for the world to look at a summit of this kind as either an opportunity or simply another conference. From my perspective, given the economic turmoil we are witnessing in the world at the moment, we should view Rio as a world summit on the economy, or a world economic summit - but with a very important difference compared to a G8 or G20 summit, or an IMF/World Bank annual meeting.
In Rio, equity and sustainability will be central parameters of thinking about the future of our economies. That allows us to address some of the crises before this [current economic] crisis. Some of the problems we are facing did not begin with the banking, financial or debt crises; they were beginning to be visible and driving our economies and societies beforehand.
We have to make the link between the broader sustainable development agenda, which to some may seem a little bit abstract, and the very real crises of the moment but also not to simply get stuck in the symptoms. That’s why I think both themes that have been chosen for Rio are potentially extremely relevant: the green economy because it really does seem to be a more focussed accelerated transition in our economic systems; and also the institutional framework for sustainable development ― that’s the second theme ― which is essentially multilateral code language for how on earth are we going to actually work together in the architecture we have built up since the Second World War?
Can the idea of a green economy take root worldwide?
Let’s acknowledge first of all that we live in economic times, and that economics in the broader sense of the word is one of the key means by which we make decisions in our society, whether you call it GDP growth, or you call it inflation or money supply or return on investment.
How do you capture the value of nature and its services in an economic context? Our systems of national accounting are so narrow and crude that they would actually value a forest fire possibly higher ― because of all the emergency services’ expenditures and the reconstruction of houses ― than the actual loss of that forest ecosystem because of that fire, because we have no way of capturing the value of natural wealth to our economies.
You might well say we have done rather well without that in the last 200 years or 1,000 years where we could always turn to the next forest, the next valley, the next river. But the world today with 7 billion people has run out of places to turn to and therefore it needs to start managing, the priority being on sustainability.
So will that mean a debate in Rio on a new definition of GDP: green GDP?
Definitely. As usual, I don’t think they will reach a single definition right there. But I think they will set a new system in motion in two, three, five years time. A lot of work needs to be done, but it’s less than many think, because GDP is actually a remarkably crude indicator.
What will be the role of the private sector in pushing for this new green economy?
While still competing very much on good ideas, technologies and patents the private sector is actually very conscious that in the context of climate change there are so many risks now inherent in terms of the impact of climate change but also the uncertainty. Is it going to be a low–carbon economy? Do we invest in coal–fired power station or rather adapt to wind?
On the natural resources front, supply chains are becoming more and more vulnerable. Risk is becoming more pronounced for many businesses. Food–price markets are fluctuating violently because of extreme weather events.
People recognise the risks of environmental degradation: climate change, loss of ecosystems, scarcity of water and land to produce food. These are all factors that are putting the economy on a more unstable path, and that is why businesses with a degree of longer–term vision and strategy are increasingly looking to governments to address those risks. And they can be addressed only through the kind of scalable responses, such as moving from fossil fuels to renewables, that no individual business actors can actually bring about.
A well–functioning market is actually a regulated market, funnily enough, and not a Milton Friedman notion of 30 years ago of the less government the better. That is definitely emerging.
Some say managing a global green economy will require a different type of organisation from UNEP.
The debate about international environment governance is one example that we focus on in particular, because increasingly our [UNEP] governing council member states have said the system for environmental governance is simply not adequate, fragmented, very costly, and in need of reform.
Notions such as coherence, efficiency and more effective governance have led to people putting the motion on the table: do we need a United Nations environment organisation ― a specialised agency to more effectively develop policy in a coherent sense ― because at the moment, climate change, biodiversity and other issues are all separate conferences of the parties.
I would not see UNEP graduating into a cross–breed between the World Bank and the UNDP because you have the World Bank as our development finance institution together with the regional development banks. You have UNDP, UNIDO, WHO, and much of the objective of strengthening of environmental sustainability is to ensure it is promoted in the health sector and the agriculture sector in development decisions.
In order to strengthen environmental sustainability in international and national policy you also need a very effective advocate. Virtually every country has a ministry for the environment or an environmental agency which often began as a little department tucked within the ministry of agriculture or energy. Gradually, over time, environmental issues have become more important, and I think the international system is at that point where it needs to make a decision: do we want to have a more effective international environmental governance or do we want to leave it, at a moment where we are not happy?
My question is how do we strengthen the role of ministers responsible for the environment in the international policy process. The way our system is set up today is that if you have a specialised agency you have your own governance platform. That means when you meet and decide something, it has locus standi [legal standing]. So they make policy in the WTO, they make policy in the WHO. But when they discuss policy proposals in UNEP, they then have to send it to the [UN] General Assembly. And that’s partly where the discussion is meant to go.
Do you think this will be achieved at Rio+20?
Most difficult negotiations began with a no–no and ended up with a Yes, OK I’ll go along with it. I’m not second guessing what the outcome on 23 June [in Rio] will be but the fact of the matter is that over 122 countries in their submissions on 1 November called for a specialised [UN Environment] agency. So in Rio it needs to be discussed.
Maybe it will not be adopted. But even the United States has made it very clear they want to see a strengthening of environmental governance and a strengthening of UNEP. They are very concerned not to get into treaty threshold negotiations and they are not alone. But, then, a large number of countries actually want to go in that direction, so this is nothing new. It’s on the table and that’s a good thing because simply to shut your eyes and say we don’t want to talk about it is what we’ve done for the last 10–15 years. In Rio it’s on the table. Let’s talk about it, let’s see what the world can come up with.
Rio is not about negotiating a treaty in the broadest sense but a cooperative agreement between governments with some big–ticket items being discussed, perhaps the most interesting being beyond GDP and a new measure of wealth and the externalities of pollution and environmental damage so that you can go 'Right, lets bring that into the economic calculation of wealth of a nation and therefore a world'.
What are your hopes for Rio+20?
Basically that environmental policy will increasingly be viewed not as a constraint on development but really the enabling factor for future development and that when we talk about environmental standards, pollution standards, and efficiencies, that they will be appreciated for what they really are – a driver for greater economic efficiency, productivity, while creating fewer risks for society.
Q&As are edited for length and clarity
This article is part of SciDev.Net Conference Service's coverage for Eye on Earth Summit 2011