NAIROBI: With unemployment soaring, bankruptcies climbing, and stock markets in free-fall, it may at first glance seem sensible to ditch the fight against climate change and put environmental investments on hold. But this would be a devastating mistake of immediate, as well as inter-generational, proportions.
Far from burdening an already over-stressed, over-stretched global economy, environmental investments are exactly what is needed to get people back to work, get order books flowing, and assist in powering economies back to health.
In the past, concern for the environment was viewed as a luxury; today, it is a necessity – a point grasped by some, but by no means all, economic architects yet.
A big slice of President Barack Obama’s $825 billion stimulus package for the United States includes a boost to renewable energy, “weatherizing a million homes, and upgrading the country’s inefficient electricity grid. Such investments could generate an estimated five million “green-collar jobs, provide a shot in the arm for the construction and engineering industries, and get America back into the equally serious business of combating climate change and achieving energy security.
The Republic of Korea, which is losing jobs for the first time in more than five years, has also spotted the green lining to grim economic times.
President Lee Myung-Bak’s government plans to invest $38 billion employing people to clean up four major rivers and reduce disaster risks by building embankments and water-treatment facilities.
Other elements of Lee’s plan include construction of eco-friendly transportation networks, such as high-speed railways and hundreds of kilometers of bicycle tracks, and generating energy using waste methane from landfills. The package also counts on investments in hybrid vehicle technologies.
Similar pro-employment “Green New Deal packages have been lined up in China, Japan, and the United Kingdom. They are equally relevant to developing economies in terms of jobs, fighting poverty, and creating new opportunities at a time of increasingly uncertain commodity prices and exports.
In South Africa, the government-backed Working for Water initiative – which employs more than 30,000 people, including women, youth, and the disabled – also sees opportunity in crisis. The country spends roughly $60 million annually fighting invasive alien plants that threaten native wildlife, water supplies, important tourism destinations, and farmland.
This work is set to expand as more than 40 million tons of invasive alien plants are harvested for power-station fuel. As a result, an estimated 500 megawatts of electricity, equal to 2% of the country’s electricity needs, will be generated, along with more than 5,000 jobs.
So it is clear that some countries now view environmental investments in infrastructure, energy systems, and ecosystems as among the best bets for recovery. Others may be unsure about the potential returns from investing in ecosystem services such as forest carbon storage or in renewable energy for the 80% of Africans who have no access to electricity. Still others may simply be unaware of how to precisely follow suit.
In early February, the United Nations Environment Program will convene some of the world’s leading economists at the UN’s headquarters in New York. A strategy for a Global Green New Deal, tailored to different national challenges, will be fleshed out in order to assist world leaders and ministers craft stimulus packages that work on multiple fronts.
The Global Green New Deal, which UNEP launched as a concept in October 2008, responds to the current economic malaise. Spent wisely, however, these stimulus packages could trigger far-reaching and transformational trends, setting the stage for a more sustainable, urgently needed Green Economy for the twenty-first century.
The trillions of dollars that have been mobilized to address current woes, together with the trillions of investors’ dollars waiting in the wings, represent an opportunity that was unthinkable only 12 months ago: the chance to steer a more resource-efficient and intelligent course that can address problems ranging from climate change and natural-resource scarcity to water shortages and biodiversity loss.
Blindly pumping the current bail-out billions into old industries and exhausted economic models will be throwing good money after bad while mortgaging our children’s future. Instead, political leaders must use these windfalls to invest in innovation, promote sustainable businesses, and encourage new patterns of decent, long-lasting employment.
Achim Steiner, a UN Under-Secretary General, is Executive Director of the UN Environment Program. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).