A Green New Deal

New approach shows efforts to save ecosystems also save money.

Achim Steiner 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Achim Steiner 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a new strategy increasingly espoused by environmental activists, United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner laid out the reasons why a sustainable future just makes rational economic sense in the midst of the global financial crisis. "What I am trying to do is dispel the mythology that there is some sort of tradeoff between environmental efforts and financial return," the German director told an audience at Tel Aviv University on Sunday night, alongside newly-installed Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud). The event was hosted by the university, the ministry and the Globes financial newspaper. "I would argue that the environmental agenda of the 21st century is economic. Therefore it forces activists to become more economically conversant just as others have become more ecologically aware," he said. UNEP published a policy paper last month arguing that the global financial crisis represented a huge opportunity for planning the direction of development over the next 30 or more years. Extraction of minerals and fossil fuels was not sustainable, Steiner said, and that debate was over. The question now is how to proceed into the future. "Does it make sense to pour $100b. into AIG? I am not opposed to bailouts per se, but it would be a tragedy if the funds just went to prop up failed businesses," rather than be invested in green infrastructure, he said. "If you want, you can call it a more efficient economy rather than a green one. Doesn't it make more sense to manage agriculture with less water but the same output? Or cars which use one third less gas? "It took us 60 years to develop a light bulb which uses just 20% of the energy a regular one does. A few years ago, the market was struggling. Now, the EU is banning the old ones," Steiner said. Both Steiner and the paper argued that countries were in search of good investments, and green infrastructure was the way to go. The fossil fuel economy was accompanied by certain complementary developments, the new century and the new economy required a different focus. With one percent of global GDP, the world could be put on a path to sustainable development. With $3 trillion in stimulus packages proposed, Steiner and UNEP argue that $750b. put towards green technology and infrastructure would go a very long way. After years of warning about the loss of ecosystems and habitats, water loss and other phenomena, environmental activists have increasingly begun to speak the language of business and the bottom line. The approach has become: Rather than save ecosystems for their natural value, save them because of all the money they save you. "Take national parks. We just measured and discovered that national parks sequester 17% of carbon. Earth has developed its own mechanisms over millions of years to deal with carbon. Yet we spend billions trying to develop an artificial sequestration system. Instead, we could build more parks at a tenth of the cost," he pointed out. Moving specifically to Israel, Steiner charged that every country faced similar major decisions that had to be made. "No country's decision is more important than any other," he added. "Without the US, the world will not move, but the world depends on collective action to act," he declared. "Tomorrow's market will punish carbon intensive products and processes… Israel has a great opportunity, but if it does not step up, then someone else will," he warned. UNEP's policy brief focused on five critical areas: efficiency, renewable energy, agriculture, transport, and water resources. Better techniques in these areas would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and bring about billions of dollars in savings and profits, the report argued. Steiner touched on some of the suggestions during his lecture. "Jobs are going to come from the green economy. There are already more people working in the renewable energy sector than there are in the oil and gas industry," he said. Referring to the US auto industry bailouts, he asked "Why are we being held hostage to failed markets? Toyota will survive because it is innovating [through new hybrid initiatives], but Chrysler won't if it doesn't." Steiner also put an interesting perspective on the natural services the world all but takes for granted, like rainfall and forests. Interlocking ecosystems provide many "services" which the world's people do not readily take into account. "Close to two thirds of natural ecosystem services are overused. Pretty soon we'll probably be paying countries for these natural services - unthinkable 10 years ago, heresy 15 years ago, and the future five years from now," he said.