EXPO 2017 “is what conversation on transition to clean energy needs to be about,” says head of UN Environment Programme

ASTANA – Erik Solheim, head of the UN Environment Programme and Deputy Secretary-General of the UN, visited Astana late last month to meet with senior Kazakh officials and discuss joint activities, as well as become acquainted with the future-energy themed EXPO 2017. The Astana Times had the opportunity to interview the Norwegian-born diplomat.

Erik Solheim

Erik Solheim

First of all, thank you for visiting Kazakhstan and attending EXPO 2017 with the theme of Future Energy. The country largely depends on fossil fuels – do you think it fulfilled its aim to showcase the best practices in clean energy and encourage other nations to use them?

For me, this really has been a welcome declaration of intent that sends a very strong message. Kazakhstan has shown that it understands the challenges faced by the planet and that the future, both for its own economy and the rest of the world, needs to be low carbon.

What is also so encouraging is that rather than sit around and talk about the problems, Kazakhstan has hosted an event entirely focused on solutions. We have seen the solutions of the future and solutions that can be deployed today, ranging from energy-generating buildings to electricity from garden plants and even a sustainable dance floor that I had a go on myself!

Ultimately, this is what the conversation on the transition to clean energy needs to be about. It is about showcasing innovation, making connections and highlighting the incredible opportunities that are out there.

As you know, the Kazakh government aims to rearrange its energy mix and make 50 percent of the country’s energy come from renewables by 2050. What are the tools to make investors interested in this process? What incentives should the government apply to make this goal a reality?

This is an important and welcome commitment, and it is perfectly achievable. A key ingredient will be to create the policy framework and stable business space for this change to take place, so investors can be mobilised and confident that a shift to renewable energy is irreversible. From a political perspective, it always helps if such strategies are presented as a non-partisan, national priority.

As a key voice in the Central Asia region, it is also important for Kazakhstan to do its part to ensure that the environment is a central priority in the development of China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

What are your practical recommendations for Kazakhstan’s speedy transition to a truly green economy?

Specific incentives can come in two broad forms. One is the phasing down or removal of subsidies that encourage excessive production and consumption of fossil fuels. These subsidies serve as a disincentive for investments in renewable energy.

The other is the public sector’s sharing of risks with investors in renewable energy. This risk sharing could be done in the form of loan guarantees, tax breaks for both producers and users of renewable energy, public procurement requiring the use of renewable energy products, requirement for the national grid to be open to renewable energy sources and public investment in research and development, among others.

In broader terms, it is also critical to build public support for the change by finding ways in which the public can quickly see that the shift brings more jobs and better health, for example.

At expo, we held a high level dialogue on this topic together with the government of Switzerland and the explorer and Solar Impulse pioneer Bertrand Piccard. There is promising momentum that the transition will be a speedy one.

In order to ensure a speedy transition, it is important first to specify measurable goals and targets over specific time periods, then to estimate the amount of investments required to deliver those goals and targets. Domestic and external financial resources need to be mobilised to make the investments happen and these investments need to be monitored and evaluated to see how they contribute to the achievements of the goals and targets, while making policy adjustments as needed.

The world is now heading towards urbanisation. By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population is expected to be living in cities. Do you think it is possible to combine urbanisation and a green future? How can we achieve this?

It all depends on how we choose to live. With the right urban planning and infrastructure – coupled with smart choices made by citizens – we can certainly achieve this. There is no reason for cities to be unbearable, polluted and gas-guzzling places!

Look at Astana. Any visitor can see how rapidly it is developing, yet it still aims to see more than half of its land area flourish with green cover by 2030. Connecting artificial forests and parks throughout the city will not only help clean the air, but also reduce its temperature and ensure it remains a pleasant place to live.

Meanwhile, the city of Copenhagen is also growing, but still aims to become carbon neutral by 2025. Thanks to excellent urban design and the fact that cycling is fun, cheap and healthy, even now there are more bikes than people in the city! Such examples show how urbanisation and a green future can go hand-in-hand.

While more and more of us live in cities, we can and must keep our relationship with nature intact. Astana shows that we need not imagine ugly, grey and inefficient buildings when we think of urbanisation – green can and must be beautiful. That puts us in a better position to take care of the environment.

How do you assess Kazakhstan’s Official Development Assistance programme?

I very much commend the programme, which shows just how mature and valuable the country’s role is for the region. Such leadership can also help contribute to the global goals. We hope that Kazakhstan can continue to set an example and also step up its investment in our common climate; for example, to the environment fund that supports our work and the quality of service that we strive to deliver to member states.

Time has shown that policies and environmental challenges are closely intertwined and interdependent. Taking into account that the U.S. administration is one of the biggest and most influential actors, what do you think are the consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement?

Earlier this year, a coal museum in Kentucky in the United States needed to install new electricity capacity. What type of energy did it choose? It opted for solar power. This speaks volumes as to where we are inevitably heading. There can be no doubt that the future lies in clean energy.

If anything, I think we have seen a renewed surge in momentum from cities and the private sector towards climate action in the United States. As a result, at this rate we can realistically expect the country to fulfil its commitments made under the Paris Agreement – whether it is officially a part of it or not. We are talking about a potential win-win for us all, whether for bright young minds preparing for a job in the clean energy sector or people living in what are sadly high-risk areas for hurricanes or other natural disasters.

You mention how policies and environmental challenges are closely linked and I would add other factors. With pollution levels rising worldwide, prices for renewables falling and the high potential for job creation, I strongly believe the clean energy transition will happen even faster than we think.

We know that you have solid experience as a peace negotiator, having contributed to the peace processes in Sri Lanka, Sudan, Myanmar, Nepal and Burundi. Do you think the Astana Process is bringing any tangible results? What else can be done to make it efficient?

There certainly has been some progress, in that we have seen some reduction in violence in Syria as a result of the Astana Process. I very much hope that it will succeed, but unfortunately the kind of tangible result that we need to see – a complete cessation of violence and a halt to a terrible humanitarian crisis – has not happened yet. This is ultimately what matters most: an end to the terrible suffering of the Syrian people.

Speaking from experience, I fully understand how challenging a peace process can be. Getting two sides or multiple sides to the same table is in itself a huge challenge and every step of the process can be extremely frustrating and discouraging. Every step can be very time consuming, meaning a great deal of patience, determination and resolve is required.