Sustainable urbanisation

600,000 jobs in China

In the 21st century, development needs to take account of environmental issues. Achim Steiner, the head of UNEP, sees significant opportunities in big agglomerations.

In the industrial-country model of development, economic growth is achieved all too often at the expense of the environment. In poor countries, development needs to be ecologically sustainable from the outset. Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), reports that many policymakers in poor countries are quite interested in sustainable development, but they do not get sufficient attention from donor institutions. He believes economic success and resource consumption should be de­coupled.

The human race is growing, with an urban population set to increase by around three billion in the next 30 to 40 years. To minimise future problems, Steiner sees good planning as a top priority, especially for infrastructure. Even without a global agreement on greenhouse gas reduction, climate-friendly technologies are a market hit, he points out. Steiner notes that China has created some 600,000 jobs in the manufacturing of solar devices. Around ten per cent of urban Chinese households benefit from solar installations, and the country has become a leading exporter of solar products.

High upfront costs

Multilateral and bilateral institutions need to rethink their policies, Steiner told his audience when he visited KfW Entwicklungsbank at the beginning of September. It is often difficult to mobilise capital for climate-friendly investments in developing countries, according to him. Solar systems typically require high upfront investment, which drives up the costs of major construction projects. Within the UN system for instance, the fact that such investments are recouped within eight to ten years and free electricity supplied for a decade and a half thereafter is not currently taken into account, as Steiner can tell from ex­perience.

Urban problems often call for decisive political action. Nairobi, for instance, has no regulated waste management system, Steiner reports, though 70 to 80 % of the waste generated is potentially recyclable; the rest is hazardous. But all waste recovery operations are informal, and there is no proper system for the disposal of harmful substances. Steiner says that private enterprise would readily engage in the potentially lucrative business of waste management in Nairobi, but there is no political will to create the conditions required.

In May next year, the international community will reassemble in Rio de Janeiro and review developments since the 1992 Earth Summit. Steiner hopes that the conference will result in better financing schemes for sustainable development and stronger global environmental governance. Today, he points out, environment ministers cannot implement their agreements directly through a UN agency. While their colleagues who are in charge of health sectors can rely on the WHO for implementation, environment ministers have to submit all agreements to the UN Gen­eral Assembly for approval.

Merle Becker

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