Achim Steiner, UN Under-Secretary General and Executive Director, UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to the Global Alliance on Banking for Value
Zeist, 3 March 2009 - Zeist, 3 March 2009?Her Royal Highness, Princess Maxima of the Netherlands, our hosts Triodos Bank, members of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
In my work as Executive Director of UNEP, we try to understand what it is that makes society act in one of two ways - on the one hand completely irrationally, and on the other hand with great courage, daring, intelligence and vision.
At the beginning of the 21st century it appears as if the former is carrying the day as humanity behaves in strange, irrational ways in the face of some of the most startling and sobering scientific information - information covering the impact of ozone-depleting substances and greenhouse gases up to chemical pollution and phenomena such as atmospheric brown clouds.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I myself was stunned last year by reactions to the oil price shooting up; our economies and the grand captains of our industry didn't say "well maybe now is the time to try and switch to low carbon alternatives - quite the contrary".
Indeed the reaction to news that Arctic ice is melting away was not to stop and pause but to scramble to look for more oil there as the oceans opened up.
When the price of oil went above $50 a barrel - which was supposedly that magical, impossible threshold when renewable energy could become a great competitor - what also happened here?
Some leading oil companies actually disinvested from renewable energy and invested in the oil sands in Canada. This isn't just irrational behaviour - it is worse than that.
It's a signal that those who have the means to invest, explore and supply us with energy are continuing to head in the wrong direction.
Ladies and gentlemen,
we're living through a truly unique moment in history, a moment when civilisation actually still has a choice and a freedom to choose which subsequent generations may not have in the future.
The Global Alliance for Banking on Values underlines an alternative path that echoes to the challenges facing current and future generations.
Yet overall are enough institutions and organization making the right choices if money-making at all costs remains at the root of decision-making? Certainly citizens are now questioning the economic models that prevail and questioning them with a deep and abiding scepticism, if not full-scale disenchantment.
That is because in almost a blink of an eye the world has seen billions of dollars wiped off the balance sheets of companies. Indeed you wake up one morning and a quarter of the entire world's aid budget has just gone off the balance sheet of a single company, but the company goes on as if nothing happened.
This is a game that doesn't seem to hurt the top of the pyramid, but destroys its foundations. It is a situation that goes way beyond debate about deficits, stimulus packages, inflation and bail-out packages- it actually amounts to one of the most destabilising moments in modern history.
I believe we're yet to see the real impact of all this. Of course unemployment will increase and bankruptcies will increase. Fortunately some parts of the world have social security systems to help soften the blow. But for most people on this planet there's simply no safety net.
So in terms of the poverty-related UN Millennium Development Goals we're condemning hundreds of millions of people to failure.
Last year's food price crisis offered a worrying example of what can happen when we expose people to speculative bubbles in international markets.
I deliberately call it a food price crisis because, despite some shortages in some parts of the world, the planet did not have too little food.
Instead, on the basis of a few indicators and the flight of capital out of the sub-prime market, commodity price markets suddenly came under a huge amount of pressure.
This is not a global economy that will succeed in the 21st century, from a social or an economic perspective, or indeed an environmental perspective if it continues in this way.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I believe that as we move towards Copenhagen and the UN climate change convention negotiations at the end of this year, we face a moment that the history books will recall.
We are in the midst of a financial crisis but also, and as a community of 190 nations, we have to agree on a way of helping each other move away from a carbon-intense and energy-intense economy.
Nevertheless, money is currently being spent on domestic recovery packages and bank bail-outs which in turn make the chances of putting together an international financial package to deal with climate change seem remote.
However, it's equally important to remember that simply by changing the way we view economic development, we can begin to make real progress.
At UNEP, we've taken on the term 'Green Economy' not so much as a corporate slogan but rather as a way of giving momentum to the very idea of there being a better way.
When we turn to the big financial institutions, they still ask, "what have environmental initiatives and knowledge got to do with running the financial markets?" My answer is, of course, "everything".
Indeed, the future of our economic development at the beginning of the 21st century is predicated on understanding how the environment and the economy will build a stronger relationship.
That puts as much onus on environmentalists to become economically literate as it puts pressure on economists to become environmentally informed. And that is what I believe is at the heart of the philosophy of this Global Alliance.
When you look at the trillions of dollars that have now been earmarked for stimulus, recovery and bail-out packages, you are looking at an extraordinary sum of money that has been mobilized in record time?the speed and scale is unprecedented in the history of humankind.
The great danger right now is that this money will simply be spent on stabilising today's- or even more worryingly- yesterday's economy.
We are thus running the risk of investing these resources with the narrow aim of simply saving jobs, industries and sectors that are from yesteryear rather than ones that can be part of tomorrow's economy.
Ladies and gentlemen,
Whether by design or by shock the world is condemned to rapidly move towards a low-carbon economy; it's simply a matter of time.
So if my sons, who are now eight and six years old, are the ones who'll have to help repay these trillions of dollars then we have an ethical responsibility to invest in the future.
That's why we've been calling for a Global Green New Deal?one that right here and now can catalyze the global economy towards s Green one.
In the face of rampant uncertainty amongst finance ministers and world leaders, we have a few weeks in which to convince a confused world that simply returning to a dated and broken economic model will be a catastrophic missed opportunity.
We need to convince our political leaders going into the G20 meeting and various upcoming high-level summits that transformative investments are the real key to recovery.
Otherwise we'll simply be re-booting an operating system which caused all our computers to crash in the first place.
It's sometimes tempting to see the global economy as some kind of enormous tanker whose course we cannot alter ? but the more we think like that, the more unstoppable it becomes.
The truth is there are solutions out there. For example, we've developed a number of pioneering ways in which the north can help the south quickly develop the technology and capacity needed to sustain a low-carbon economy.
But we need at least $100 to $150 billion every year over the next five to ten years to jump-start this kind of progress which is currently more than we expend on the entire aid budget from North to South each year.
Are these targets impossible? Well, simply adding $5 or $10 to the price of each barrel of oil consumed in OECD nations would generate something around $90 billion up to say $180 billion immediately. And in a world where the oil price recently dropped from $150 back to $40, seems a small levy to pay in return for a global and effective climate response.
We currently seem incapable of taking these kinds of decisions ? decisions that would transform the climate change agenda and the future of this planet.
Yet these are the sorts of ideas we should be talking about. But we are not, because every politician runs away from such ideas, fearful of the public reaction.
Do we really underestimate people so much? If they were given the facts and figures, and engaged in the debate, would people really argue over a few extra cents per litre for the sake of the planet's health?
The true value of this Alliance is its ability to turn conventional thinking on its head. It's important to point out the absurdity of Kenya trying to develop nuclear energy when it is sitting on literally thousands of megawatts of geothermal, solar and wind power.
Where have all these international investors been? Where has the national energy policy of Kenya been when it could have been capitalising on geothermal power which is something that's in the ground, nationally owned, non-polluting and essentially inexhaustible?
Our job is to give a voice to this alternative economic discourse, and point the way to the kind of financial decision making which moves above and beyond pure self interest.