The Sisyphus from Nairobi: How the UN's Climate Advocate Wants to Save the World

By Horand Knaup and Christian Schwägerl

Achim Steiner heads up the UN Environment Program, a traditionally weak agency with an annual budget of just 200 million dollars. But Steiner is doing his best to transform the position into a soapbox for the environment -- and is having some success.

Photo Gallery: Trying to Save the World from Nairobi Photos
REUTERS

The amount of commotion clogging up the Istanbul airport in early October was out of the ordinary. Finance ministers, heads of central banks and other monetary experts were disembarking from their respective aircraft en masse and before long the city was besieged with black limousines, flashing blue lights and motorcycle escorts.

The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) held their annual meeting in this city on the Bosporus on Oct. 6 and 7, as the world's financial elite sought a way out of the global economic crisis. But one man seemed to have been overlooked by those in charge of protocol. He waited patiently at the baggage claim, took his suitcase from the conveyor belt, hailed a taxi and paid his own way to the conference center.

Achim Steiner, 48, wasn't offended by his hosts' negligence. He doesn't need status symbols like limousines and escorts. In fact, a big limousine isn't quite the sort of thing an environmentalist wants to be seen in. Stein heads the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), a UN agency with headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, a staff of 500 and an annual budget of about $200 million (€134 million). He is one of the highest-ranking environmentalists in the world, and yet in Istanbul, it became apparent that this doesn't carry much weight in some circles, particularly the global financial elite, who still treat environmental issues as a secondary concern.

Ironically, Steiner's job is to watch over the natural resources that make it possible for the others to even think about making money: the world's oceans and forests, the climate, water and species diversity. These fundamental elements of life are in an acute crisis, with conceivably dramatic consequences for the world economy.

'Unparalleled Act of Egotism'

In three weeks, representatives of more than 190 countries will meet in Copenhagen to discuss ways to curb the consumption of fossil fuels. The conference will be a decisive test on whether the world has learned to think about the future in new ways or whether it will remain entrenched in old patterns; whether it wants to leave an unsustainable legacy for future generations or has the determination to begin addressing ecological problems today. Steiner believes that climate change, the loss of species and the destruction of forests are such great threats that he sees humanity facing a "crossroads" as it heads into the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. "There can be no half-baked deals in Copenhagen. Failure would be an unparalleled act of egotism," says Steiner.

Steiner's comments came as he was scurrying through the hallways of the Istanbul conference center searching for the correct room. "All economic policy ought to be revolving around how to develop a thoroughly green world economy," he said. "But all that is being discussed is how the attractive growth rates that existed before the financial crisis can be achieved once again."

The World Bank had scheduled Steiner to participate in a panel discussion, the main purpose of which was to elegantly bridge the lunch hour. Steiner and a few other experts were in Istanbul essentially to fill the intermission.

After the panel discussion, Steiner talked himself into a rage. "They are still thinking in linear fashion," he said. "For them, the primacy of CO2 reduction is still nothing but a nuisance." Steiner is one of the leaders of a new current in the global environmental movement that is no longer willing to be fobbed off with small-scale conservation projects, green showpiece projects and lip service to sustainability. He wants to rebuild the system, force the perpetrators to discharge their duties and finally see action.

'Looking Grim for Mankind'

"We must penetrate into the heart of the financial world," he said. "Things will be looking grim for mankind if it doesn't become green."

Steiner conducts his campaign against the clearing of tropical rain forests, droughts and rising sea levels from his office in Nairobi, which is furnished with heavy, hardwood furniture from another era -- built to last an eternity. One of his predecessors had the furniture made out of Zimbabwean railroad ties.

Steiner, the former head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), wasn't on anyone's list in 2006, when a replacement for outgoing UNEP Director Klaus Töpfer was being sought. Then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan tipped the balance in Steiner's favor when he said that he wanted the position filled with a true advocate for the cause and not some professional politician trained in the art of compromise. Steiner brought in new people, changed structures, deepened ties to non-governmental organizations and vied for the confidence of donor nations. His efforts paid off, as he brought in countries like Spain and South Korea and increased UNEP funding by 30 percent.

The goal of achieving a green economy in which environmental protection and prosperity are not mutually exclusive has been Steiner's top priority since the global financial crisis began. If hundreds of billions can be mobilized to rescue the banks, the same approach must be possible when it comes to saving the foundation of life on Earth. The idea is to commit governments and companies worldwide to abide by a new environmental rulebook. Limited resources, from forests to fishing grounds to the atmosphere, should no longer be free and only acquire a market price when they are being destroyed.

Lack of UNEP Power

The concept foresees industrialized nations paying countries in the tropics to preserve their rainforests as CO2 sinks. "Only if we pay more for the forest than people can get out of them by cutting them down do we stand a chance," says Steiner. The green economy concept now has the blessing of officials at UN headquarters -- a great success for Steiner. "Two years ago," he says, "the people in New York would have run away from the idea."

Steiner was born in Brazil, studied in Oxford and London, and has worked in Pakistan, South Africa and Zimbabwe -- the perfect background for someone operating on the global stage. But his biggest problem is UNEP's lack of power at an operational level. The agency is sometimes referred to as the "global environmental conscience." It can admonish, remind and encourage, but it cannot introduce rules or impose penalties. Limits, guidelines and compensation payments are also matters that are decided elsewhere.

In addition, UNEP is only a UN program and not a powerful, independent UN organization like the World Health Organization (WHO). There are no mandatory contributions for governments, only voluntary donations.

Met with Criticism

Some of the 500 UNEP employees in Nairobi, a motley assortment of people from around the world, prefer to devote themselves to administration rather than new ideas. It is a situation in which a director who dreams of creating a hard-hitting team, changes structures, rethinks departments and wants to see results isn't always making friends. Steiner's attempt to transform UNEP's role from that of the admonisher to that of an important player has been met with criticism.

In Kenya, the UNEP staff is helping to save the Mau forest, the country's main source of water, and in Mali and Haiti they are attempting to revive entire ecosystems. Critics from the large donor nations say that UNEP lacks the capacity to approach such programs at the operational level, and that the organization is taking on more than it can handle. Others critical of UNEP want to see the agency pay less attention to its profile and more attention to the actual results of international processes. Responding to such criticism, Steiner says: "UNEP can't just incubate ideas in laboratories. We also have to prove that our approaches are feasible."

Steiner hopes that UNEP will be upgraded to the status of a UN organization at the 2012 sustainable development summit in Rio de Janeiro. Global efforts to protect the environment and the climate, after all, need a more powerful structure. In September, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel sent a letter voicing their support of Steiner's cause to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, and in doing so reignited the debate. "It was a signal, but nothing more, not yet," says Steiner.

How does he cope with the daily frustrations in his position, and the fact that environmental destruction continues to progress at a much faster pace than all efforts to promote a green economy?

'Certain Amount of Stubbornness'

Steiner, sitting on his terrace in Nairobi, ponders the question for a while before answering. "Well, we have achieved quite a lot already. We are no longer merely a hindrance to development, but have become players in economic policy decisions." South Korea, for example, has asked UNEP to help it structure its economy to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. But then Steiner says: "It's a Sisyphean task, and it requires a certain amount of stubbornness."

The man is a persistent optimist. He believes that there are far more solutions than problems. He honed his approach to his work in a previous role as secretary general of the World Commission on Dams, where part of his job was to help avoid conflicts in the construction of giant dams. "We had big corporations sitting at the same table with people who were threatening to drown themselves in protest." In the end, stays Steiner, the two sides were at least able to agree on a joint report.

Such differences are trivial compared with the massive challenges of the coming weeks. In the weeks leading up to the Copenhagen summit, the signs are pointing to discord rather than agreement. The industrialized world wants developing nations to make concrete contributions to CO2 reduction. The developing world, on the other hand, insists on receiving billions in aid to pay the high costs of environmentally friendly power plants and dams designed to prevent flooding.

Three weeks before the UN climate summit in Copenhagen, Steiner has been talking insistently to politicians to advocate for a strong climate treaty. He is outraged at the general talk that the Copenhagen summit will be a failure. "Anyone who reduces expectations now is only jeopardizing the chances of success," he says.

Steiner believes that the conference should not end without binding, scientifically sustainable reduction targets, and without concrete pledges by industrialized nations to spend billions on climate protection in poorer countries. The governments have had plenty of time to come up with concrete amounts to which they could commit themselves. "A climate policy of small steps is no longer sufficient," says Steiner. "We're dealing with the fate of the entire planet."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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