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Sustainability is the forgotten half of globalisation, says Achim Steiner

The prevailing notion of globalisation is that it is based on trade, but globalisation is about sustainability too, and the SDGs provide a guiding framework for the private sector, ex-UNEP boss Achim Steiner tells Eco-Business.

Achim Steiner, one of the longest serving executive directors in the 45-year history of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), fears some rough waters may lie ahead for the planet in view of the latest developments in global politics.

But Steiner, who left UNEP after a decade-long term in February last year, also believes there is reason for optimism.

What happens in one country will not destablise a global community that wants to act together on an issue like climate change, Steiner tells Eco-Business in a recent interview.

“We should not allow the politics of one nation to define the direction of a community of nations,” he says, suggesting that Asia, despite facing immense environmental challenges, will increasingly be at the frontline of sustainable development.

Steiner believes that the solidarity of support for sustainable development the world over should not be underestimated, even though major obstacles stand in the way.

“Much of what we’ve learned in the last 30 years is that the greatest sustainability successes are achieved through intelligent policy choices based on smart regulation and entrepreneurial innovation. But we have reached a moment when we need business leaders to step forward,” he says.

The role of business and innovation is the focus of a keynote speech that Steiner will be giving at the Macau International Environment Co-operation Forum & Exhibition (MIECF) next month.

“The transition to a green economy is not some distant parallel universe - it’s already happening,” says Steiner from his office at Oxford University, where he now runs a research centre focused on tackling the biggest challenges of the 21st century.

In this wide-ranging interview, Steiner talks about his proudest moments and biggest disappointments during a decade with UNEP, how to build momentum around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and the growing awareness of sustainability in Asia.

After a long stint with UNEP, what would you say has been your proudest moment?

It’s difficult to single one out. But I would highlight UNEP’s role in putting the transition to a green economy at the centre of global political debates on policymaking and development. That was a real breakthrough.

There is also UNEP’s inquiry on green finance. This has gone the furthest in being taken up by G20 countries and the World Bank to promote the alignment of financial markets with sustainable development. Now, Italy is also advancing the sustainable finance agenda during its presidency of the G7.

The UNEP also helped pave the way for the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, which aims to install large-scale renewable energy capacity in Africa by 2020.

Longer term, the agency established another membership body at the Rio+20 in 2012 - the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development - that became the UN Environment Assembly. That was also a major milestone, giving the environment the same level of prominence as other issues such as peace, poverty, health, security and trade.

The political upheaval we are now seeing in many parts of the world is a reaction to the prevailing notion of globalisation, which is focused largely on trade. What SDGs provide for all of us is the other half of the globalisation agenda. 

Achim Steiner, director, Oxford Martin School, former executive director United Nations Environment Programme

And your biggest disappointment during your time with UNEP?

One area that is finally gaining renewed attention is the oceans. Our marine ecosystems are under stress. We tried a number of times to bring the issue from a conservation point of view back onto the global stage. But this proved difficult because of national interests in fishing and mineral exploitation rights.

There was a perception among member states that they were better off exploiting deep sea beds for mining purposes. I think this is a grave misjudgement. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, which came into force in 1994) was the foundation on which the international community committed to manage the oceans together, and the lack of progress has been disappointing.

From your experience in persuading the business community to embrace sustainability during your time at UNEP, what would you say has been the most effective method?

Strength in engagement relies on two key principles. One, recognising that the private sector is fundamental to enable a transition to a green economy. This transition cannot happen against the business agenda; it has to happen with it.

You have to understand what businesses felt were the practical constraints - which were often misconceptions - that prevented them from transiting to a low carbon economy. 

And so UNEP invested a great deal of energy working with industries such as construction, energy and electronics in developing evidence of the viability of sustainable business ideas.

For instance, UNEP has been looking at how the electronics industry could design a mobile phone that makes the recycling of precious metals much easier. Previously, how to recycle a phone did not feature prominently at the design stage.

Companies sell around one billion cell phones every year, but the lifespan of a phone is at most a few years, and used units are piling up in homes and landfills. A circular economy in mobile phones makes good economic and environmental sense.

What needs to happen now to build momentum in the business community around the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

Some companies say that the SDGs are global goals, and question what have they got to do with their business.

But every company should take a moment to review their business in terms of the SDGs. They provide businesses with an orientation for tomorrow’s economy and regulatory environment.

For any company that operates in the global marketplace, SDGs are a relevant framework to prepare for a future in which inequality, access to energy, climate change and resource scarcity will present major challenges.

Business collectively needs to look at the SDGs as a way of paying more attention to the unfulfilled promises - real or perceived - of globalisation.

The political upheaval we are now seeing in many parts of the world is a reaction to the prevailing notion of globalisation, which is focused largely on trade. What SDGs provide for all of us is the other half of the globalisation agenda. 

Globalisation can’t just be about trade - it has to be about sustainability and dealing with inequality too - and SDGs are the agreed interpretation of globalisation from that perspective.

Goals that are agreed in the General Assembly of the UN are often viewed as merely ideas on paper. I would urge people to remember that many decisions made in the assembly have had profound consequences for issues such as human rights, but also economic development.

It’s easy to dismiss a forum that says seven billion people have to have a shared agenda. But it is the first time since the end of World War IIthat all nations have agreed to a shared development agenda. The people behind the SDGs should be justifiably proud.

The task of implementing the SDGs is however not the responsibility of the UN - even though its agencies play a supportive role. Their success depends on whether governments, parliaments, company shareholders and citizens use the SDGs to drive and judge performance at national level - that’s when the goals become real.

What would you say is the single biggest obstacle standing in the way of businesses moving towards more sustainable practices?

Uncertainty and ambiguity in policy signals are always major constraints in terms of transformation and transition. It’s difficult for some business leaders to make a major decision when there’s uncertainty in the policy arena - it often becomes a reason and an excuse not to move.

Policymakers have a big responsibility to provide clear signals on what the markets of tomorrow will look like.

We’ve seen with renewable energy how remarkably quickly a transition can take place in moving energy towards a low-carbon future. For the past three years, annual investment in renewable energy infrastructure has exceeded the combined total of investment in oil, coal gas and nuclear electricity generating capacity. It’s a radical shift that has happened in less than 15 years.

But there’s still the issue of reluctant capital. The world of finance is very good at identifying opportunity, but is often also remarkably conservative and risk averse. The problem with risk aversion is that you could be operating in a market that is no longer certain and will leave you with stranded assets. This is why innovation in financial markets is key to economic progress.

Financial markets are critical to enable access to capital beyond public investment funds. If we don’t make financial markets part of the solution, the move towards more resource efficient production won’t happen. That’s why the topic of green finance is so critical.

Which businesses do you admire the most in terms of sustainability?

I’m always cautious to pick out individual companies. If you do, and talk about their remarkable feats of innovation, they will inevitably have legacy issues and then the public debate about that company will get distorted.

Leadership in business is the most interesting currency with which to assess progress of a sustainable economy. In the Western world, there’s often a perception that Silicon Valley is leading the change. But there are also business leaders in China, India, South America and Africa who are just as bold, if not yet seen as globally influential, at assuming responsibility for innovation and transformation.

What is your view on the awareness of sustainability issues among the business community in Asia?

In recent years, I’ve noticed a growing realisation and acceptance that Asia’s long-term economic future cannot only be premised on a growth model that doesn’t account for what is happening to the environment and its people.

Whether it is air quality in Singapore as a result of forest fires in Indonesia, air pollution from vehicles in India’s cities or power stations in China’s industrial centres - the toxicity and cost in terms of human health and environmental destruction is no longer viewed as justifiable in the name of development, nor acceptable to citizens.

I think Asia will increasingly be at the frontline of the 21st century’s sustainability transformation. It has immense environmental and sustainability challenges that are beginning to affect economic performance, human well being and political acceptance.

I think in this region there is an ability to relate back to a deeper ethical discussion on what is quality of life and justice.

For instance, in China, the concept of ‘ecological civilisation’ is becoming central to national development policy, while Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels. And there are green development agendas emerging in countries from Thailand to Indonesia; virtually every country in Asia is rethinking the classic economic indicators.

There are major challenges: Asia’s population is growing, more people are connecting to grids, they increasingly travel, they’re consuming more food. But now we’re seeing remarkable innovations that send a different signal to the economy.

Do you think that the private sector will step in where government has stepped back on sustainable development?

There is always room to step up to the plate, but one must be careful with the assumption that companies can replace the government, or vice versa.

Much of what we’ve learnt in the last 30 years is that the greatest sustainability successes are achieved through intelligent policy choices based on smart regulation and entrepreneurial innovation. But we have reached a moment when we need business leaders to step forward. 

How hopeful are you about the environment’s future given the current economic and political climate?

I think the centre of gravity for what happens globally is no longer defined exclusively by one superpower. That gives me some confidence - particularly as other nations signal their willingness to provide new leadership.

Though some rough waters may lie ahead, the course is clear: What happens in one country may cause challenges but will not destabilise the global community’s agreed commitments to act collectively and in solidarity on issues like climate change.

This year’s MIECF features Steiner as a keynote speaker, among others. To hear more from him and other experts, register for the Macao International Environmental Co-operation Forum & Exhibition (MIECF) held from 30 March - 1 April 2017 here. 

With an exciting lineup of an international conference, exhibition, business matching and networking activities, MIECF offers access to opportunities from the Pan-Pearl River Delta Region of China (PPRD Region), Asia-Pacific and Portuguese-speaking countries and beyond. At the Green Forum, speakers will discuss energy efficiency, green buildings, sustainable tourism, manufacturing best practice and environmental policies. 

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