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Munk School of Global Affairs

The global green growth opportunity

By Achim Steiner, United Nations under-secretary general and executive director, United Nations Environment Programme

The G20’s commitment to a green recovery and sustainable growth remains firm

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The G20 Seoul Summit in the Republic of Korea represents an important opportunity to deal with the twin challenges of sustaining the global economic recovery while meeting the poverty-related Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Perhaps both challenges have a common opportunity and uniting thread that is coloured green.

Many developing and least developed economies are turning to environmental investments and green policy measures to clear a different development path for some of their poorest citizens. With greater support, they could scale up and embed such transitions within local and regional economies while addressing not one, but several of the MDGs in highly cost-effective and transformational ways.

This was among the points highlighted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), through its Green Economy initiative, in a report to the MDG review held in advance of the opening of the UN’s 65th General Assembly in New York in September 2010.

Deliberate policies and investments in Costa Rica have triggered a big expansion of protected areas and national parks to more than 25 per cent of the country’s land area. Since this strategy was adopted there has been a boom in eco-tourism, with well over 1 million visitors a year, generating $5 million annually in entrance fees alone. Studies indicate that communities living in or near national parks have higher wages, employment rates and lower rates of poverty.

The UNEP report also spotlights China’s energy policy as set out in its 11th five-year plan covering 2006 to 2011. The plan has helped trigger a rapid rise in renewable energy manufacturing and installation.

China is now the second-biggest wind power in the world and the biggest exporter of photovoltaics: 10 per cent of households have solar water heaters. There are 1.5 million people employed in China’s renewables sector with 300,000 of those jobs generated in 2009 alone.

Creative and forward-looking urban planning, allied to sustainable transport policies, have allowed the Brazilian city of Curitiba to grow more than sixfold while simultaneously improving mobility and the quality of life. The average area of green space per person has risen from 1 square metre to around 50 square metres; 45 per cent of journeys are made by public transport; excessive fuel use due to congestion is 13 times less per person than in Sao Paulo; and the lower levels of air pollution are having measurable health benefits.

In Nepal, 14,000 community forest user groups have reversed the deforestation rates of the 1990s through smart, community-based policies that include setting harvesting rules and product prices and sharing profits. Between 2000 and 2005, the annual forested area of Nepal actually rose by over 1.3 per cent. Soil quality and water supplies are better managed and employment levels have risen.

Uganda, a country where 85 per cent of the working population is employed in agriculture, has turned to organic production to boost exports and incomes. Farm-gate prices for organic vanilla, ginger and pineapples are higher than conventional produce. Since 2004, the number of certified organic farmers has grown from 45,000 to more than 200,000 and the area of land under organic cultivation from 185,000 hectares to close to 300,000 hectares.

Meanwhile an unprecedented new alliance supported by the Clinton Initiative and partners, including the UN Foundation, launched a global initiative in September 2010 to phase out inefficient cook stoves. Three billion people still cook on stoves fuelled by charcoal, dung, wood and other biomass, while some countries debate the merits or otherwise of nuclear power or carbon capture and storage at coal-fired power stations. An estimated 1.8 million premature deaths — many among women and children — are linked with indoor emissions from inefficient cook stoves. Such cooking systems also contribute to local deforestation.

UNEP is one of the organisations involved — for multiple reasons that relate not only to achieving the MDGs but also to wider concerns including biodiversity loss and climate change. Scientists are becoming increasingly concerned about the health as well as the agricultural and climate impacts of black carbon.

Project Atmospheric Brown Cloud is an international, scientific endeavour supported by UNEP that is monitoring and assessing a band of pollution 3 kilometres wide, stretching from the Arabian Peninsula to China and Japan. Inefficient cooking stoves are estimated to be responsible for approximately 25 per cent of emissions of the cloud’s black carbon particles. Black carbon may contribute 10 per cent or more to current climate change.

The new initiative underlines that there are big actions but also multiple, small actions that can deliver a significant outcome to the MDGs if they are backed by strong partnerships, strategic funding and supportive policies from national governments and the international community. They too are part of a forward-looking and long-lasting sustainable economic recovery based on a low-carbon, resource-efficient path in developed, rapidly developing and developing countries alike.

Earlier this year in Toronto, Canada the G20 reiterated its commitment to a green recovery and sustainable growth. In doing so this group of 20 leading countries has staked its future on a fundamentally different paradigm suited to the challenges and opportunities of a very different century.

Ensuring that these aims, investment strategies and policies resonate with, and support, the targets of the MDGs — and the legitimate aspirations of the poor — is perhaps the best chance in a generation for securing a sustainable development path that is open to all.

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