The UN environmental agency has called on governments to strive to invest in "greening" their economy, saying re-focusing the global economy towards investments in clean technologies and "natural" infrastructure has the potential for higher returns.
Speaking in an exclusive interview with Xinhua in Nairobi on Thursday, the UN Environment Program (UNEP) Executive Director Achim Steiner said governments should move rapidly towards a green economy and low carbon projects as part of efforts to revive the world economy from its current slowdown and create millions of jobs.
Steiner also admitted the current economic crisis which many countries are grappling with has shifted the world's attention away from ecological issues.
"Our attention has been distracted because clearly the financial meltdown of last year that many countries are struggling with now has preoccupied politicians, business leaders but particularly citizens, because if you lose your job in China, the United States or in Kenya here, it really takes your mind from longer-term issues," Steiner told Xinhua.
However, Steiner who is also the UN Under-secretary-general, said the UN agency has also seen significantly investment in some of the technologies and policies geared towards greener economy.
He said investing stimulus funds in energy efficient technologies, renewable energy, public transport, sustainable agriculture, environmentally friendly tourism and the sustainable management of natural resources could help create millions of jobs.
"I think it's a matter of public attention now and public interest whether this stimulus package would deliver green benefits," said Steiner.
The UNEP chief said investing the funds in those sectors reflects the conviction that a green economy can create dynamic new industries, quality jobs and income growth while mitigating and adapting to climate change and arresting biodiversity decline.
"China has been amongst the leading nations in the global context that have promoted investments in the green economy as part of the stimulus package as like (South) Korea and the Obama Administration," Steiner said.
"So even though we still face a major challenge in this economic crisis ... the economic crisis is also an opportunity to change our existing infrastructure to invest in more efficient transport to be able to use energy efficiency as an opportunity."
Steiner said investments in improved energy efficiency in buildings could generate an additional millions of green jobs in developed countries, with the potential much higher in developing countries.
The UNEP-backed initiative, the Green Economy Initiative, which has close to 4 million U.S. dollar worth of funding from the European Commission, Germany and Norway, builds in part on a request by the G20 group of nations three years ago.
The initiative which was launched in October 2008 has three pillars -- valuing and mainstreaming nature's services into national and international accounts; employment generation through green jobs and the laying out the policies; instruments and market signals able to accelerate a transition to a Green Economy.
The Green Economy Initiative will draw on the existing and considerable body of work generated by UNEP, the UN-system and others ranging from the impacts and opportunities of shifting fish, fuel and other subsidies up to innovative market mechanisms and financial products already triggering a transition.
For the past months, UNEP has been working with a wide variety of agencies, including the Bretton Woods Institutions and Secretariats of Multilateral Environmental Agreements, in the design and implementation of the initiative.
Steiner called for some revived economic strategies and new trade policies which would support both development and the transfer of technologies, accompanied by training and capacity building.
Steiner, who is also the director-general of the UN Office in Nairobi, also backed a global transition to a low carbon, resource efficient green economy, able to deliver multiple economic and environmental opportunities.
The UNEP chief said rapid transition to energy-efficient buildings would create millions of jobs, as well as "greening" existing employment for millions of people already working in the construction and transport sectors.
"We are willing to borrow right now more money than we had ever been willing to invest in either climate change or investing in the destruction of our ecosystem, the every ecological infrastructure that sustains our lives and economy," said Steiner.
"As we are spending these amounts right now, we are saying we should take the counsel of green economy. Not only can we maintain jobs, we can create millions of new jobs, we can produce energy and transport services with much lesser energy consumption and you can combat climate change."
Over the past 300 years, Steiner said, the global forest area has shrunk by around 40 percent, half the globe's wetlands have been lost since 1900 and human-led species extinction rates are now 1,000 higher than the "natural" rate of extinction.
Steiner said the ecological crisis requires a collective response from the global community which would lay a solid foundation for shared growth and sustainable development.
Countries like China, the European countries, North American countries have recognized that climate change is a fundamental gain changer including in economic policies, he said.
"Therefore if we do not use some of this economic stimulus to invest in tomorrow's jobs rather than in yesterday's technologies, we would have missed a major opportunity."
He lauded strides that have been made by China in the last 20 years for increasing its net forest cover as opposed to many developed nations who are facing a net decrease in their forest cover.
"We have to move towards more efficient agriculture, more efficient ecological agriculture, reward farmers not only for maximizing food production but managing the landscapes that we need to grow our future food," Steiner said.
He said the ideal of investing in green economy was not new until 2008 when many companies and business came up with innovations due to climate change and loss of biodiversity.
"UNEP has managed to encourage governments and the public, businesses and the financial sectors to realize that investing in the green economy is not a charity, its not a subsidy ... it's actually a rational economic preposition," he said.
Steiner noted that as a result of the UNEP-backed campaign to invest in green economy, over 100 countries have embarked on a very intensive debate in greening the economy that has led to investing in billions of dollars towards that direction.
He said United States , China, South Korea and European Union have lined up billions of dollars towards greener economy projects as part of the crisis management.
"I think there is a fundamental realization that environmental change is increasingly driving economic policies and investment strategies and that is why we have seen renewal energy emerging in just the last eight to nine years from simply very marginal part of the electricity investments to No.1 in the investment sector in the world."
(Xinhua News Agency July 24, 2009)