He drives a 14 year old Mercedes Benz inherited from his predecessor Klaus Topfer. That’s because he’s holding out for a Tesla, or what he hopes will be Kenya’s first Tesla. The Tesla being powered by electricity and not carbon emitting fossil fuel; the perfect car for the man charged with the world’s environment – the United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director, Achim Steiner.
Even his ‘castle’ is environmentally sustainable being entirely solar-powered and it would be remiss, as an avid proponent of the green economy, if he failed to mention the economic benefits of such an investment. “This building houses 1,200 people, the headquarters of UNEP and also of Habitat. It is powered 100 percent by photovoltaic power and therefore our electricity produces zero carbon emissions. And you know what, within eight years of the construction, we would have paid off the investment for the infrastructure and then we’ll be earning anywhere between Sh13 million and Sh16 million for the power we produce,” he touts.
It’s a model he’d like to see replicated elsewhere and handing me a publication titled, “Building for the future,” he urges me to share its contents with architects and real estate investors alike. He also hands me a Green Economy Assessment Report on Kenya – it’s difficult to write about Steiner and not write about the Green Economy. It’s a theme that comes up time and again in his speeches and presentations as it did when he spoke about, “the future we want,” at a TEDx event in Nairobi. “A transition towards a green economy is not only a necessity, it has become an imperative,” he stated. An overriding theme that could be put down to his conversion from a Development Economist to a Green Economist and the ever pressing challenge of climate change.
“The experience of seeing villagers in Pakistan lose their natural resource base, the very foundation of their livelihoods, caused the idea that we could escape from nature in order to achieve development to lose its attraction and promise and it was at that point in time that for me the notion of people and the planet, of ecology and economy suddenly became an increasingly central focus to my own journey,” he shared in his TEDx address. And what he hopes will be a central focus in Africa’s own journey as the next economic frontier; where he has for the last eight years as UNEP Executive Director, advocated for renewable energy powered – as opposed to fossil fuel powered – growth.
“Africa today has a billion people. Three-quarters of them have no access to electricity. Will Africa’s investment in electricity generating infrastructure go down the 20th Century pathway with fossil fuels which means we’ll add another Chinese sized economy just in the next 30 to 40 years in terms of carbon emissions? “Herein lies one of the great opportunities. Can Africa leap frog? Can it move to a cleaner energy solution? To decentralised off-grid solutions? Because many of Africa’s people live in the rural areas. The grids will not reach them for a long time even in countries that have a lot of oil such as Nigeria,” he argues.
A green economy, he continues to say, could free the continent from debt, an indebtedness to Western and Eastern powers whose financial muscle it would require to exploit its fossil fuel deposits or from where many countries source the fossil fuel required to power their economies.
“In the words of the late Meles Zenawi, the Green Economy is an opportunity for us to regain control of our own development decisions rather than depending on someone else’s technology or finance in terms of what we will do,” he references.
And it’s in the same vein that he advises Kenya to stick to the renewable energy plan despite the discovery of fossil fuel deposits in Northern Kenya.
“My first response was oh dear and then I thought wow, isn’t this interesting. I mean here is a part of Kenya that for the better part of history as we know it has been a very harsh place; marginal to the progress of the big cities like Nairobi.
And within just a few years wind has been discovered to be in such optimal conditions. Secondly oil is discovered, thirdly water reserves are discovered. My worry as it is with many Kenyans and many in Turkana is, can these opportunities be harnessed for the benefit of the people?”
His personal investment in the fortunes of the Turkana people and Kenya in general stemming from the eight years he’s lived in the country following his appointment as UNEP Executive Director in 2006.
And although he calls it a win for the UNEP family as a whole, his greatest accomplishment to date has to be the United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) taking place between June 23 and 27 at the United Nations Office in Nairobi (UNON).
“After the Rio+20 Summit in 2012 something quite historic happened. It is the first time in over 40 years member states of the United Nations decided to reform the governance of UNEP. Just in a few weeks time all the member states will now be represented in the United Nations Environment Assembly. Up to now we used to have a governing council composed of 58 member states,” he testifies.
Historic, he says, because the UNEA is a sign of the global recognition that it cannot continue to be business as usual to the detriment of the environment.
“Let’s be honest, maybe at the time countries said well, a small United Nations programme, let’s try it out. You know, it’s not the centre of the universe, it’s not the Security Council, why not put it in a developing country,” he opines on the origins of UNEP.
But with over a thousand ministers, chief justices and executives assembling under the auspices of both UNEP and Kenya in a few weeks, both were clearly not to be underestimated, he says.
“Kenya provided this fantastic state. I think we have one of the most beautiful headquarters of any organisation. And I think over the years those issues that many perceived as challenges and let’s be frank, UNEP in Nairobi in the 70s and 80s was viewed by many as a liability to some extent. You know, when we began communicating with telexes and travel and so on.
“But as I often say, I think as you look forward to the next few decades and what is happening with the African continent, being in Kenya, being in the heart of Africa, may well turn out to have been the best decision for a headquarters for the United Nations Environment Programme.”
A position he holds in spite of the spate of terror attacks in his host country, “I as the Executive Director of UNEP, my staff here do not see ourselves separate from the wananchi (citizens). If anything, we have means to protect ourselves perhaps better than many people on the street. We have to together find a way in which both terrorism and crime are tackled in the best possible way.
“Don’t forget that the very reason for the UN’s existence is to be the first one in and the last one out when terror strikes, not to abandon ship. That said, especially with UNEA, we’re asking governments to send high-level delegations and I won’t lie and say it was easy assuaging some of the insecurity fears.” Terrorism aside, it’s the bureaucracy that comes with running an organisation as far reaching as UNEP that is a thorn in his side.
“We are an international organisation that is by virtue of its history and also by virtue of how governments treat it, a very bureaucratic institution. We are therefore often hampered in the sense that we could be far more entrepreneurial and far more efficient if in fact the administrative and bureaucratic framework were reformed,” he says.
His belief in the power of the individual to change the world however is what he says keeps him going, working through the system.
“Wangari Maathai proved this when she made this call for a billion trees to be planted. I was certainly at that time very shy of such an ambitious call yet four years later 14 billion trees have been planted by people all over the world without either the Green Belt Movement or UNEP ever having had to pay anyone for doing this.”
Having yet to become jaded, Steiner will continue to serve as the UNEP Executive Director for at least another two years after receiving a nod from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and the UN General Assembly. “Given the changes occasioned by the Rio Summit they felt it was not an ideal time to have the captain step off the bridge,” Steiner explains.
And as he looks out at the waters into the horizon, his vision for Kenya includes Tesla’s powered not by the fossil fuel deposits found in Northern Kenya but energy harnessed from the wind, solar and geo-thermal resources found in abundance.
“It would be great for the UNEP Executive Director to have the first plug in car to show that not withstanding our power cuts that we could actually jump to electric cars. Because petrol is not going to get cheaper. Renewable energy, the more you produce, the more infrastructure you have, the cheaper it becomes.” “Sounds impractical doesn’t it? But when Wangari Maathai proposed planting a billion trees I thought she was impractical too. Look at us now, 14 billion trees later.”
NB: Press Cutting Service
This article is culled from daily press coverage from around the world. It is posted on the Urban Gateway by way of keeping all users informed about matters of interest. The opinion expressed in this article is that of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of UN-Habitat