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News, 6/16/2017

New UNDP Administrator believes in smart choices

For Achim Steiner, there never was a big difference between development and environmental issues.

Achim Steiner
"For a long time, we used to define development through the economy. It transpired that societies may develop quite quickly in this respect, but if at the end of the day the price for the environment is too high, people will actually become impoverished", says UNDP administrator Achim Steiner.

“I have always said that environmental issues are about development—that is why the transition to the post of Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was natural for me,” says Achim Steiner, who was appointed to one of the UN’s highest positions in April. Previously, he has served as Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), as Director General of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and in various other executive roles.

Steiner is a visionary, and the world needs visionaries right now. The United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development brought together a number of individual processes that have been contributing to human development and the sustainable development of the environment. The agenda comprises 17 goals and 169 sub-goals.

For Steiner, the division of the whole into economic, social and environmental sustainable development is much more than a package containing “all good things for everyone”. You cannot have one without the other.

“For a long time, we used to define development through the economy. It transpired that societies may develop quite quickly in this respect, but if at the end of the day the price for the environment is too high, people will actually become impoverished.”

The same applies to inequality and the Agenda principle “leave no one behind”:

“It may sound simple, but it includes the notion that the economy may grow; but if at the same time society loses justice and equality, it will soon lose the people’s support.”

Global becomes national

In Steiner’s view, the UN plays an important part in the increasingly complex world in which nation states are constantly confronted with international, intertwined phenomena related to issues such as security, climate change, employment and refugees.

UNDP is present in the countries of the world more comprehensively than many other UN organisations. Steiner hopes that UNDP, as an “anchor organisation” for development, could serve as an efficient, multi-disciplinary platform, providing governments with technical support and best practices from around the world.

That is also one of the reasons Steiner is now visiting Finland. A lot is happening in the field of sustainable development: a few moments ago, Steiner attended an international circular economy forum organised by the Finnish Innovation Fund Sitra in Helsinki. Finland is also one of the first countries to set up a national action plan for the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“The Nordic countries are at a high level in terms of economic, social and environmental sustainability. Other countries look to you in order to understand how the three dimensions of the Agenda can be combined in practice.”

Forerunners lead the way

Ceremonial speeches at UN arenas aside, it is clear that we have a huge effort ahead of us. Is Steiner confident that we will find a new sustainable development path?

 He does not really confess to be a techno-optimist, but refers to the—sometimes unexpected—developments brought about by the circular economy: precisely those where development and environmental protection go hand in hand.

“I have witnessed the willingness of several countries to invest in renewable energy, even when the solution was not the cheapest, solely on the basis that the solution was good and right. When a few major pioneer countries have taken the risk and led the development work, we are suddenly in a situation where renewable energy is significantly less expensive and available to people who earlier did not have electricity at all.”

Development and environmental organisations both work on our common challenges, and more and more measures are equally important from both perspectives—it does not matter whether you justify them through development or environmental protection.

“For example, WHO is fighting diseases, FAO is responsible for food security, and both of these are directly affected by climate change.  Reducing pollution improves health, renewable energies boost energy supply also in remote areas, and forest protection improves water resources in various regions of the world.  Everybody wins when we can find new, smarter ways to act.”

Eija Palosuo

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