Achim Steiner is the man who coined the phrase ‘peak everything’ in a speech to World Challenge – a global competition aimed at finding projects or small businesses that are making a difference at grassroots level. As the man charged with overseeing the UN’s response to six key priorities: climate change, disasters and conflicts, ecosystem management, environmental governance, sustainable consumption and harmful waste – he knows what he’s talking about. Yet Steiner’s speech wasn’t as bleak as it sounds. Change is possible, he argued. In fact, everything we need may already be here – we just have to find it. Sublime tracked him down to his office in Nairobi and asked him to expand a little.
SUBLIME: What do you mean by ‘peak everything’, and why raise it now?
ACHIM STEINER: I wanted to draw attention to two facts. The first is that we live in a world where we will very soon – in the next 40 years – reach a population total of 9bn people. Second, the way our economies value our planet’s natural resources, our natural capital if you want, means we are behaving more like a mining company than a sustainable management operation.
We need to accept that it’s not just peak oil – where the term had its origin – but over time, we will reach peak everything. That’s rather an exaggeration, but we are reaching a ‘peak’ on many things, in terms of fisheries, in terms of arable land, the soil on which we grow our food, forests and wetland ecosystems. Many of the key cities of the world don’t even have access to clean air. We are going to have to learn to manage our planet much more intelligently and much more efficiently.
S: Surely it’s an issue of political leadership?
AS: Political leadership rarely comes about through courage alone – it needs political support. That is why public awareness is almost more important because politicians will follow where the public lead. But yes, you need politicians who are willing to lead that change, and business leaders. There are opportunities in the heads of many entrepreneurs today, but they are not being given the chance to succeed because a few big players dominate the economy.
S: So we’re already doing it, but not big enough or fast enough?
AS: Precisely. The shoots of a green economy are actually popping up everywhere in the world, whether you look at developing or industrial countries. The problem is that they are still at the margins of our economy. That has to do with our taxation and pricing systems – until recently, if you were to buy an energy-efficient car, such as a hybrid, it would cost more than a car that’s more polluting. Until very recently, if you were foolish enough to put your money into solar panels on your house, you’d be paying through the nose even though you’d actually be creating the perfect energy supply. This is where ecological tax reform is so important. We need to reward people for doing the right thing, and tax people for doing things that mean a cost to society.
The other side of the equation is subsidies. Every year we invest $300m in subsidising fossil fuels instead of saying, Let fossil fuels pay the market price and let’s subsidise the clean-energy options. The challenge is to mainstream the transition to a green economy. Technologically it’s perfectly feasible today – but we need to put policies in place to allow that to happen.
S: Some green economists want smaller companies, smaller units and cooperatives at the heart of things. Is that something you see as important?
AS: We live in a market economy. Economies of scale are useful. It may not always be the best option to go for ‘small is beautiful’, but at the same time most great ideas usually come from smaller businesses trying to find a cutting edge by bringing a new product onto the market. It also depends on the sector. For example, if you look at organic farming, it has grown to maybe €50bn annually, and many of the growers are small enterprises; sometimes family farms have a very significant chunk of the agricultural produce market.
S: What should we be asking from our political leaders?
AS: Access to information is absolutely vital. It’s frustrating that it is still very difficult to find out – in a simple, consumer-oriented way – where you can go for lead-free paint, or where you can get certified wood if you’re redecorating your house. You need to find it around the corner, not 50 miles out of town at some place you have to spend the day searching out on the internet.
In Germany and Switzerland they have an energy passport for each house. As a buyer, you have the right to see if the house is efficient or inefficient. And lo and behold, the prices of properties are beginning to vary because people are saying, ‘I am going to save this much electricity if I pay £5,000 more for a well-insulated house.’
S: But these things seem to be about the macro political level, very much divorced from our daily lives.
AS: We are not all scientists or ecologists. But I think what would be great is if readers of Sublime were to go into their garden or backyard or local park and try to understand how many species of plants, how many animal species, might be there. You begin to understand that much of what nature provides we don’t see because our eyes aren’t open to it.
S: This is the UN Year of Biodiversity, and 5 June is World Environment Day. If we bring those two together, we have a chance to look at what’s going on and what needs to be done. How urgent is it that we make the right choices this year? How long do we have?
AS: There isn’t one answer to that. Certainly the world is not about to disappear in 2020. The tragedy of the 20th century – and we are prolonging that tragedy in the 21st century – is that we are robbing our children and future generations of choices and assets that we simply took for granted. Let me give you a couple of statistics. The 20th century, in its drive for development and its ignorance of how ecosystems function, destroyed 50% of the world’s wetlands. We know today that these wetlands are vital ecosystems that are part of our water supply, part of maintaining extraordinary biodiversity and actually store 20% to 25% more carbon dioxide than a tropical rainforest.
Meanwhile, global warming means that nearly three-quarters of the world’s coral reefs are being irreversibly damaged. We are losing species at an unprecedented rate. Some scientists estimate we’re going one thousand times faster than if human beings weren’t around. And the consequence of all of this is, oh yes, you can live with fewer species of frog on the planet, but somewhere along the line ecosystems begin to collapse.
S: But ecosystems have collapsed in the past – why is this threat so serious?
AS: Let’s take just the cost. In the 1960s the Thames was a dead river. We spent millions cleaning it up, and we have never been able to bring it back to what it was, but at least there is life in there now. The cost of repairing and restoring something is far higher than trying to act more consciously right now.
S: How can we act more consciously?
AS: Take a slogan that became very popular in Japan – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. We can reduce our consumption. We can move a family of five people from A to B with one-third of the petrol consumption that we were taking for granted just 15 or 20 years ago. We can reuse – water, for example. In the UK you already do that. Some of your drinking water is reused seven times. And we can recycle.
Here in Nairobi, a city of 4m people, we produce 21,500 tonnes of waste every day. Roughly three-quarters of that is organic waste, which you can recycle through two avenues. You can extract the methane that comes from landfill to power electricity generation, and organic waste can be used as fertiliser.
If you separate out the metals and plastics, they can be used to help many of the poorest people earn a living, and at the same time to reduce the need to mine further assets. At the moment, waste is an absolute health and pollution problem, but if it were managed properly it could actually earn someone money and reduce the footprint of your city. Saving the world doesn’t have to be hard.