Sat, Feb 07, 2009 - Page 9 News List

Environmental investments a necessity, not a luxury

By Achim Steiner

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 intergenerational, 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 US President Barack Obama’s US$825 billion stimulus package for the US includes a boost to renewable energy, “weatherizing” a million homes and upgrading the country’s inefficient electricity grid.

Such investments could generate an estimated 5 million “green-collar” jobs, provide a shot in the arm for the construction and engineering industries, and get the US back into the equally serious business of combating climate change and achieving energy security.

South Korea, which is losing jobs for the first time in more than five years, has also spotted the green lining to grim economic times. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s government plans to invest US$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 UK. 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, including women, young people and the disabled — also sees opportunity in crisis. The country spends roughly US$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 36.3 million tonnes of invasive alien plants are harvested for power-station fuel. As a result, an estimated 500 megawatts of electricity, equal to 2 percent 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 percent of Africans who have no access to electricity. Still others may simply be unaware of how to precisely follow suit.

The UN Environment Program (UNEP) will convene some of the world’s leading economists at the UN’s headquarters in New York this month. 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.

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