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Speech by Achim Steiner, UNEP Executive Director to John Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies

Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you for being here and thank the Paul H. Nitze School of Advance International Studies and the Pew Environment Group, for making this gathering possible.

Washington, 25 September 2009 - We meet three days after the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon's high level, heads-of-state meeting in New York on climate change and as the G20 nations meet in Pittsburgh.

We also meet less than 80 days before the crucial UN climate convention meeting in Copenhagen.

Certainly the tempo of rhetoric on climate change over the past days and months has never been higher, nor have the stakes.

Yesterday here in Washington UNEP in collaboration with leading scientists launched a Compendium of Climate Science.

It is based on peer-reviewed research papers that have been published since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) landmark 2007 fourth assessment.

If one thought the IPCC's findings and forecasts were sobering, I would urge you to glance through the Compendium.

This is not consensus science, but science at the frontiers-a snap shot if you will of what the cutting edge is telling the world.

The science is telling us that the upper limits of the IPCC are fast becoming the norm or will become the norm soon-that we are pushing, if not pushing past limits.

A sea level rise of one to two metres-and glaciers upon which perhaps a fifth of the global population depend disappearing.

The researchers talk about "irreversible changes"- about events thought likely to happen decades in the future, happening now - upwellings off the coast of California of sea water corrosive enough to undermine the ability of marine organisms to build shells.

Thus the whole marine food chain perhaps at risk as a result of the build up of carbon dioxide making the seas and oceans more acidic.

Scientists are also talking more frequently of tipping points-the equivalent of the straw breaking the camels back-in this case the potential collapse of ecosystems such as the Amazon forest.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The science of the IPCC and this latest science should empower governments to act.

And there are other imperatives and another force on their side-public opinion.

Last week UNEP in collaboration with the polling company Globescan published a survey of almost 20,000 people in 20 countries-developed and developing.

Nearly one in two people asked said combating climate change would be good for the economy-and the same number said even if it hurt the economy, governments should act anyway.

(You may not be surprised to learn that the level of support in the United States was somewhat below the global average with people in China among the strongest backers!).

Last Sunday we announced that an initiative known as the Billion Tree Campaign had reached its new goal of catalyzing the planting of over seven billion trees.

Literally millions of people, some frustrated and others optimistic about combating climate change have rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty in the name of the environment.

Seven billion trees, seven billion statements of the global publics desire to see action and seven billion reasons why governments should feel empowered to act.

Ladies and gentlemen,

So the science is telling governments they must act and so is the public. But what of the economics, what does this advise?

Last October, when the financial crisis had become a full-scale economic crisis, UNEP in collaboration with economists launched a Global Green New Deal and a Green Economy initiative.

The departure point for the Green Economy is that on a planet of six billion people, rising to nine billion by 2050, the essentially extractive economic models of the past will not serve the world well.

Only via a transition to a low carbon, resource efficient economy can six to nine billion people thrive, let alone survive.

The departure point of a Global Green New Deal was the notion that investing in environmental sectors from renewable energy and energy efficiency to what I would call the planet's ecological infrastructure-ecosystems such as forests for example-could deliver multiple returns.

Returns in terms of jobs, the stimulation of new clean and high-tech industries, cuts in greenhouse gas emissions alongside setting the stage for the Green Economy.

Last February the Green Economy team suggested that one per cent of global GDP-or somewhere around a third of the stimulus packages-could fuel that transitions emergence onto the global stage.

This week, with support from the global bank HSBC and others, we published an update to coincide with the G20 gathering.

It shows that around one half of the sum deemed transformational by the experts and economists have actually been earmarked for green investments.

However, it equally shows that many countries are choosing to use at least some of their stimulus packages on such areas.

Among the seven countries studied in detail the Republic of Korea's green component represents 79 per cent of its overall planned stimulus followed by China, 34 per cent; France, 18 per cent; Germany, 13 per cent; the United States, 12 per cent; South Africa, 11 per cent and Mexico, 10 per cent.

Other countries with significant green spending as a percentage of their stimulus packages-studied in less detail- are Australia, over 20 per cent; the United Kingdom, 17 per cent; Canada, eight per cent; Spain, six per cent and Japan, six per cent.

In terms of the green stimulus per head of population, the Republic of Korea also emerges as a forerunner with over $1,230 per person followed by Australia, $420 per person; the United States, $365 per person and Japan, over $280 per person.

Analysis by HSBC indicates that overall the G20's spending on environmental investments is highest on rail, with $120 billion being spent, or planned to be spent, in this sector.

  • Investments in rail are followed by improvements to electricity grids including smart grids, just over $90 billion;
  • Water and waste projects, $80 billion
  • Energy efficiency in buildings, just under $70 billion
  • Renewable energy, just under $40 billion
  • Areas including carbon capture and storage, $30 billion
  • Low carbon or emission vehicles, $15 billion.

Perhaps the most striking finding when you disentangle all the figures is that it is Asia and countries with no formal responsibility under the current UN climate treaty that are surging forward.

There is also evidence that in terms of recovery, both China and the Republic of Korea are seeing some of the fastest.

Ladies and gentlemen,

So we have the science and we have a great deal of public opinion and we have a legion of economic arguments-from the IPCC to Lord Stern and the work of countless institutes and think-tanks, not least Pew.

We have evidence that some countries to a greater or lesser extent are factoring climate and the wider sustainability agenda into their stimulus packages and we have had declarations on green growth by for example the recent OECD finance ministers meeting in Paris.

So surely the stage is set for governments to Seal a decisive Deal in Copenhagen-one that begins to tackle serious cuts in emissions and one that supports adaptation of vulnerable countries and communities.

In New York there was certainly some movement. China's announcement that it would curb emissions by 2020 was notable as was President Obama's proposal on the phase-out or phasing-down of fossil fuel subsidies.

Other high notes include Japan's new pledges on emission reductions and the European Union has already adopted measures that go a long way towards what is needed.

But as we all know a real Deal is more possible today than last week but far from certain.

It begs the question why-what is stopping 190 nations making that final and fundamental leap?

There are many political reasons-not least that the world is still seemingly trapped in the 'you move first and we will move too or we will move later'-the kind of revolving door philosophy where no state seems quite able to exit and move forward first.

There are also some genuine realities not least in the United States-several years of inaction, making it difficult for a new administration to offer the size or the per cent age of emission reductions others are looking for.

And there are regions of countries and sectors of economies whose concerns-genuine or otherwise-are holding back progress.

While the science of climate change moves ahead apace, so do the options for maneuver.

Climate change is about cutting C02 emissions, they are the over-arching challenge. C02 persists in the atmosphere for centuries and millennia.

But an estimated 50 per cent of climate change happening now is being linked to other pollutants from black carbon; tropospheric ozone, fluorinated gases to name just some.

Perhaps there are ways in which countries can contribute-and given the short life-times of some of these pollutants contribute quickly.

Many of these non C02 pollutants need to be cut for reasons other than climate change as a result of their impacts on human health to agriculture and economically-important ecosystems like forests.

Certainly and over the coming weeks we are going to need not only goodwill but some genuine creativity-creativity to deal with those difficult realities set against an understanding that those are important, but far less critical than combating climate change.

We may not be able to dot every I and cross every T in Copenhagen-and perhaps we do not need to.

But a deal we need and one that is rich in purpose-and one that delivers a serious financial package that builds confidence and an equitable partnership between North and South.

Indeed, finance may prove to be the key that can unlock a closed door to transformational action.

I know that the word finance in some parts of the United States can cause some to bristle. But I am not talking about hand outs here.

Ecosystems such as tropical forests are, and have been, soaking up industrialized emissions for free and thus sparing the entire world some level of climate change.

Paying such countries under a Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD) would seem fair recompense for services rendered.

Restoring and rehabilitating other damaged and degraded ecosystems can also generate high rates of return domestically and internationally-returns in terms of green house gas mitigation but also in terms of enhancing agricultural production to improving water supplies.

The Economics and Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project, supported by Germany, the United Kingdom and the European Commission and whose secretariat is under UNEP, recently published a new, interim report.

TEEB is another pillar of our Green Economy initiative.

The report says the benefit to cost ratio of investing in coral reefs is around three with a rate of return on investment of seven per cent.

For mangroves the benefit to cost ratio is over 26 and the return on investment around 40 per cent.

Grasslands, the benefit to cost is 75 and the return on investment close to 80 per cent.

And the economists behind the report have many, many other thought-provoking figures.

A financial partnership that stimulates greater up take of renewable energies may also be in the economic interests of the United States-this country is among the leaders in several key technologies from thin film solar to geothermal energy systems.

Yet currently-and as part of the carbon markets of the UN's Kyoto Protocol- it is European, Japanese, Chinese and other countries clean-tech companies who are benefiting alongside the developing countries where the technology is being installed.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Unless a meaningful deal is agreed in Copenhagen the opportunities are likely to recede and the future becomes ever more uncertain.

The science is not going to go away and the costs of inaction will cost all economies dearly.

The public is also losing patience-I am now receiving e-mails that are proposing civil unrest on a scale that might make many a person's hair curl and spine shiver.

The world still has a window to plan a transition to a Green Economy-it must begin in Copenhagen.

Or it can wait and be forced into a scrambling, reactive mode to save what little economy and what little stability we have left as environmental change challenges the very structures humanity has evolved over millennia.




Further Resources

Climate Change Science Compendium 2009

UNEP: Green Economy Initiative

Global Green New Deal - G20 Update

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB)

UN's Billion Tree Campaign Hits its Seven Billion Goal Target

UNEP: Billion Tree Campaign


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