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Klaus Toepher

23 July 2004
Klaus Toepher

Klaus Toepfer became Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in February 1998. Before joining the United Nations, Klaus Toepfer held several posts in the Federal Government of Germany. He was Federal Minister of Regional Planning, Building and Urban Development from 1994 to 1998, and held the office as Federal Minister of the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety from 1987-1994.

Prior to becoming a member of the German Federal Cabinet he was State Minister of Environment and Health of the Federal State of Rhineland-Palatine (1985-1987) and State Secretary at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Health and Environment for the same state (1978-1985). In 2002 Mr. Toepfer was awarded the Bruno H. Schubert Environment Prize and the German Environment Prize which is held to be the most prestigious such prize in Europe. He holds a doctorate in Philosophy and a degree in Economics.

The Climate Group spoke to Klaus Toepfer in San Rossore, Italy on July 16th, 2004.

Do you think we are capable of stabilizing CO2 emissions?

I am certainly not resigned, but I know that we need more activity and I am very happy to see that quite a number of important governments are now involved in working to address climate change. I am also pleased to learn about the launch of this initiative (The Climate Group), and that Tony Blair will make climate change his main topic in his G8 and European Union presidencies. It is extremely helpful to know that initiatives are coming from other parts of the globe.

I believe that we can overt climate change without economically disastrous consequences, and we that we have a lot of win-win situations which we can use. We will always be confronted with uncertainly with regard to climate change, but we have enough information to encourage us to take advantage of all low hanging fruits. I learnt from Sir John Browne, the Chief Executive of BP, that their 10% cut in {CO2} emissions added more than 600 million in value for their stakeholders. How can we not take advantage of these opportunities while we can?

There are a lot of really concerned people who are saying that we must change our behaviour. This means speaking not only to those participating in the international negotiations on climate change but all those who are directly responsible for climate impacts. We need to sound the alarm call to both private businesses, and ordinary people, so that they do their utmost to create a market of the future that is less energy and carbon intensive. This is not a resigned or ideological position, it is simply economic.

You said in your speech today that you had an interesting perspective on climate change from being headquartered in Nairobi, that it has shown you both the development challenges and the environmental consequences. What are your biggest concerns about the impact of climate change?

We see right now that the poorest of the poor are suffering the most from climate change. They are not responsible for this, but the impacts are directly concentrated in the poorest countries, and they have the least capacity to adapt. The rich countries are able to adapt, because they have the economic capacity to invest in adaptation. The Netherlands always proved this. They have a wonderful country even below sea level and they can invest in maintaining this into the future. London and other developed country cities will also be able to invest in adaptation.

This is a difficult question for me, because as we externalise the cost of our wellbeing, the main consequences fall upon the developing countries. I believe this is a double request that we are making of the developing world. Climate change is not a prognosis for the next 50 years, it is happening now, so we are requesting that these countries invest in adaptation, and at the same time requesting that they do whatever is possible to develop a less carbon intensive energy future.

We have a lot of challenges, what do you think is the greatest challenge in addressing climate change?

The first challenge I see is the integration of the issue of climate change into investment decisions. It is a well known fact that old capitol stock is both economically inefficient and has a higher environmental burden. We must renew the energy supply infrastructure, starting with the United States of America. We can increase the efficiency of power stations by 50%, even before using combined production of heat and power. All of this is a technical challenge and we must integrate it into development policies. We have the opportunity to make these choices now, and waiting to act on climate change will be very expensive.

In this very moment we are heading for a new development of the global economy, urgently needed for developing countries to overcome poverty. We need to integrate environmental issues into all aspects of development, and not repeat the same mistakes made by the countries that developed first and cleaned up later. The developing countries need our co-operation. This is the main challenge, to say in development that we need to accept these environmental considerations, and that we need to integrate these new technologies.

What do you think is UNEP's unique contribution to the global economy?

I believe that first and foremost UNEP acts as an early warning system. We are a 50% partner in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and we work in that arena to make the science as clear as possible. We also contribute by running numerous pilot projects, both independently and in cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Energy Agency (IEA) and other organizations. I believe that there is a lot we can do for developing countries to help with the transfer and integration of modern technologies.

Do you think that the message about climate change is getting through to people effectively at the moment?

I am very convinced that this message is now very clear, at least in the developed countries. However, there is a huge risk of a decline in awareness and action on the issue. This is because the issue is long term so it is easy to say 'lets postpone action, we have other problems right now, we are an aging society, and we have to work for our social security'. I am also very concerned that people come back and say 'those environmentalists always come crying wolf'. We are in an absolutely disastrous situation and yet apparently, we are crying wolf too often. We must approach them based on good science, and we must prove again and again that poverty is the most toxic element in the world.

If you were looking 10 years into the future, how do you think the world might look in terms of climate change? How do you think that politics might have changed?

What I believe is that we will see change from both the demand side and the supply side. From the demand side I believe that we will have an unexpected increase in energy efficiency. I am sure that we will see prices rising for the cost of fuel and therefore we will have a development of less fossil fuel intensive energies. I also believe that will have a lot more research into a new type of nuclear power. I don't believe that it has worked in the past will but maybe it's a solution for the future. We will also have a lot of development in technologies that maybe we are not fully aware of today, such as harnessing tidal power and the huge energy power of the oceans. I expect better use of all kinds of renewable energy, and that these technologies will be delivered to the developing countries.

I also have a lot of hope that the young people in universities across the world will come back and say we need to do something, what is going on? I feel very optimistic that we will not be resigned, but instead that we will work to address these issues.

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