United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)

Financial Times: Out of the malaise

Out of the ashes of the current financial crisis, where should the 21st-century global economy look for real and long-term growth, genuine prosperity and job creation?

What about a 'Global Green New Deal'? Faced with the Great Depression, US president Franklin D. Roosevelt rapidly adopted his recovery-focused New Deal. It brought in banking and industrial reforms alongside emergency relief, work relief and agricultural programmes.

Today we need similar vision, urgent action and strong political engagement to deal with the even greater and multiple challenges of our time - from climate change and poverty to rapidly declining biodiversity and water supplies.

The financial, fuel and food crises of 2008 are in part a result of unregulated speculation, but they also require us to urgently review economic models.

First, the industrial and service sector-led growth 'at any cost' may have hit its limits - in terms of job creation and in terms of its ecological footprint on the world's increasingly scarce nature-based assets. Gross domestic product as a measure of real wealth and as a bell-weather of economic success or failure may also have had its day in its current, narrow configuration.

Climate change is perhaps the biggest market failure of all time, but there are many others in the making. Commercial fish stocks may run out in just a few years or decades and fertile agricultural land is heading in the same direction. Economists estimate that well over $2,000bn of natural capital is being lost annually as a result of deforestation. We are living off the capital; we need to live off the interest.

At least 1.3bn people live in poverty, eking out a living on less than $2 a day. Five hundred million young people will join the workforce during the next 10 years. Will all these people really be put to work so that everyone can have five cars, 20 i-Pods or a laptop in every room? Or is there another way?

Steering the global economy onto a sustainable path and delivering a Global Green New Deal is not about sentiment but about hard economics, real choices and a new compass for delivering genuine wealth creation. It is not about cutting growth but about more intelligent and sustainable growth that captures the true value of human and nature-based capital. It is about rebalancing, refocusing and redirecting investments and markets in ways that deal with multiple challenges and deliver multiple benefits in the north and in the south. Thus, it needs a substantial injection of political capital.

These are among the key points that the United Nations Environment Programme made when it launched its Green Economy initiative last month. The pillars of the new initiative include both the need to address climate change and the wider, ever more pressing, challenges of sustainability.

The initiative is not starting from zero. In 2007, $148bn was invested in the renewable energy market - up 60 per cent from the year before. The current global market for environmental goods and services is worth more than $1,300bn and could double by 2020.

Investments in improved energy efficiency in buildings could generate an additional 2m-3.5m green jobs in Europe and the US, with the potential much higher in developing countries. India could generate 900,000 jobs by 2025 in biomass gasification. Recycling and waste management employ an estimated 10m in China and 500,000 in Brazil today - reflecting, in part, the business opportunities but also the rising costs of commodities.

Several countries, including Costa Rica, Iceland, New Zealand and Norway, have joined with cities and companies to pledge a zero emission future under UNEP's Climate Neutral Network. Via the UN carbon markets, Mexico has, or has in the pipeline, close to 190 projects, including clean energy schemes, and exported $2.3bn worth of solar panels last year.

By some estimates, boosting the fuel efficiency of the US car fleet to 35mpg could generate savings to consumers of close to $40bn, which could be spent in the wider economy.

These transformations are happening as a result of 'soft' market signals, and in many cases with minimal government intervention. But what if they became harder and more imaginative?

Take forests, the world's great water storage, carbon-absorbing, soil-conserving utilities. Just $45bn a year invested in the world's 100,000 national parks and protected areas could not only secure services worth some $5,200bn but could boost employment and livelihoods for millions of indigenous and rural people. This could come from the public purse or via a fund for reduced emissions from deforestation and degradation or an expanded carbon market.

The transition to a green economy is not about some unreachable and whimsical nirvana but a way of powering the world out of its current malaise. It is a way of ensuring that money is spent not once but twice or thrice.

A Global Green New Deal echoes Mr. Roosevelt but focuses on the even greater challenges of today. It could also set the stage for unprecedented green growth for the world's 6bn people without short-changing them or the planet.

Achim Steiner is UN under-secretary general and executive director of the UN Environment Programme. Pavan Sukhdev is head of global markets for Deutsche Bank India.

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