NAIROBI, Kenya, Jun 5 – He drives a 14 year old Mercedes Benz inherited from his predecessor Klaus Topfer. That’s because he’s holding out for a Tesla, or what he hopes will be Kenya’s first Tesla.
The Tesla being powered by electricity and not carbon emitting fossil fuel; the perfect car for the man charged with the world’s environment – the United Nations Environment Programme Executive Director, Achim Steiner.
Even his ‘castle’ is environmentally sustainable being entirely solar-powered and it would be remiss, as an avid proponent of the green economy, if he failed to mention the economic benefits of such an investment.
“This building houses 1,200 people, the headquarters of UNEP and also of Habitat. It is powered 100 percent by photovoltaic power and therefore our electricity produces zero carbon emissions. And you know what, within eight years of the construction, we would have paid off the investment for the infrastructure and then we’ll be earning anywhere between Sh13 million and Sh16 million for the power we produce,” he touts.
It’s a model he’d like to see replicated elsewhere and handing me a publication titled, “Building for the future,” he urges me to share its contents with architects and real estate investors alike.
He also hands me a Green Economy Assessment Report on Kenya – it’s difficult to write about Steiner and not write about the Green Economy.
It’s a theme that comes up time and again in his speeches and presentations as it did when he spoke about, “the future we want,” at a TEDx event in Nairobi.
“A transition towards a green economy is not only a necessity, it has become an imperative,” he stated.
An overriding theme that could be put down to his conversion from a Development Economist to a Green Economist and the ever pressing challenge of climate change.
“The experience of seeing villagers in Pakistan lose their natural resource base, the very foundation of their livelihoods, caused the idea that we could escape from nature in order to achieve development to lose its attraction and promise and it was at that point in time that for me the notion of people and the planet, of ecology and economy suddenly became an increasingly central focus to my own journey,” he shared in his TEDx address.
And what he hopes will be a central focus in Africa’s own journey as the next economic frontier; where he has for the last eight years as UNEP Executive Director, advocated for renewable energy powered – as opposed to fossil fuel powered – growth.
“Africa today has a billion people. Three-quarters of them have no access to electricity. Will Africa’s investment in electricity generating infrastructure go down the 20th Century pathway with fossil fuels which means we’ll add another Chinese sized economy just in the next 30 to 40 years in terms of carbon emissions?
“Herein lies one of the great opportunities. Can Africa leap frog? Can it move to a cleaner energy solution? To decentralised off-grid solutions? Because many of Africa’s people live in the rural areas. The grids will not reach them for a long time even in countries that have a lot of oil such as Nigeria,” he argues.
A green economy, he continues to say, could free the continent from debt, an indebtedness to Western and Eastern powers whose financial muscle it would require to exploit its fossil fuel deposits or from where many countries source the fossil fuel required to power their economies.
“In the words of the late Meles Zenawi, the Green Economy is an opportunity for us to regain control of our own development decisions rather than depending on someone else’s technology or finance in terms of what we will do,” he references.
And it’s in the same vein that he advises Kenya to stick to the renewable energy plan despite the discovery of fossil fuel deposits in Northern Kenya.
“My first response was oh dear and then I thought wow, isn’t this interesting. I mean here is a part of Kenya that for the better part of history as we know it has been a very harsh place; marginal to the progress of the big cities like Nairobi.
And within just a few years wind has been discovered to be in such optimal conditions. Secondly oil is discovered, thirdly water reserves are discovered. My worry as it is with many Kenyans and many in Turkana is, can these opportunities be harnessed for the benefit of the people?”