By: José Maria Figueres

Keynote speech delivered by José Maria Figueres, former president of Costa Rica and Chairman of the Carbon War Room, at the opening ceremony of the annual conference of the Arab Forum of Environment and Development (AFED), on 27 October 2011 in Beirut.

Amigos y amigas buenos dias. Thank you all for being here.

There is no topic that is more relevant for the world today than the issue of transitioning towards a low carbon economy. When we look at the challenges that we are faced with at the global level, there are two wars that we need to fight and win. One is the war against poverty and inequality, and the other one is the war against climate change. One billion of us, to which we all belong, live a standard of living that allows us to move forward with dignity. 6 billion of our compatriots around the world still live in conditions that we need to aid, for their development and for their wellbeing and for their being able to contribute to their societies. And when it comes to climate change, we need to fight that war as well, because at the end of the day, there is no planet B. We need to get this one right, and to create a planet which is hospitable and enduring for the next generations.

Luckily enough, we can fight and win both wars with the same tools and instruments, and that is of course the transition to the low carbon economy. Moving from high carbon, which is what we have had for the last 200 years since the industrial revolution, to low carbon, which is what we need towards the future, requires the reinvention of just about everything. The way we live, the way we transport ourselves, the way we work, and the way we interact in society. That reinvention will create the jobs, the opportunities for entrepreneurship, for new business models, and for new activities that we haven’t thought of in the past that will spur our development towards the future.

So, if it makes so much sense to move towards low carbon to protect the environment, to protect our planet, to use our resources in a much more responsible way, why aren’t we embracing that cause and moving at a much faster speed?

Three Misconceptions

I shall address three misconceptions that we often hear, with respect to this opportunity.

First is the misconception that climate change is not real or that in any event it is not here, it is something of the future. And that misconception of course is absolutely wrong and false. AFED has addressed this well in its 2009 report on Impact of Climate Change in Arab Countries. We see signs of climate change in every part of the world. In the south of Latin America a glaciar upsala is retreating 200 meters per year. In the north of that continent, when one looks at the footprint of the Arctic Circle, one can see how that has diminished by 40% in the last 30 years. Lake Chad 40 years ago was the sixth largest lake, today it is a trickle, and then we ask ourselves why so many problems in Darfur, as thousands of peoples have to migrate that used to fish and work around Lake Chad into other regions of the world? In Asia, 7 rivers that are born in the Himalayan glaciers provide 50% of the drinking water to 40% of the world’s population. Those glaciers are retreating as well. Climate change is here. DATA, an international organization working out of Madrid, Spain, published an environmental monitor and a climate change report last year, already proving 350,000 deaths caused directly by climate change. Some of them by disasters, but some of them by other considerations. Climate change is affecting health patterns around the world. Decreases and increases of temperature are allowing the migrating of vectors that transmit sicknesses that in some parts of the world had already been eradicated and now we are seeing them again.

The second misconception about this opportunity moving forward, which is the combat of climate change and fighting poverty, is that governments should act and move. We need international agreements to be put together before we can do something. It is important for governments to show leadership. Of course it is important for the international community to come together and find solutions. But the international community is slow in finding solutions, even when faced with the most pressing challenges. The European economic crisis is yet one more recent example of the inability for countries to come together fast and act promptly to derail crisis modes. When it comes to climate change, the great opportunity lies in that today, without any need for further regulation, or any need for legislation, at national or international levels, full 50% of carbon emissions can be reduced while making a good business opportunity out of it. That is a low hanging fruit. That is where we can begin to create jobs that AFED report talks about, and the investment opportunities that the world needs to get out of the economic crisis and move into the path of a low carbon economy trajectory. We already begin to see that with leading companies moving in that direction, making a good business opportunity, out of mitigating this 50% of carbon emissions that can be done today. Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, is greening its supply chain. Look at Siemens report in Europe, to discover what they expect to receive in terms of sales and profits out of this new green energy and green economy sector. Look at Abengoa in Spain, with what they’re doing in the field of renewable sources. What Suntech has done in terms of solar PV in China. The list goes on and on. It is absolutely clear that leading corporations around the world are beginning to move in this direction.

The third misconception is that even if we did agree on everything that we have to do, there is no money to finance it, and especially coming out of this economic crisis. Well, I don’t agree with that. I think it’s more an issue of where our priorities are and what is the leadership that we are going to exercise to begin to move in the direction of low carbon.

I have the impression that as world leaders are trying to get us out of the economic rut in which we are, they’re doing nothing more but rearranging the chairs on the deck of the Titanic. Believing that more of the same is going to give us the solution going forward, is not farsighted and will not carry the day. The solution here is to take advantage of the crisis, transform it into an opportunity, and then move out in a new direction, which is a low carbon economy. And we have plenty of resources to finance the transition. The world today spends 1 trillion dollars a year on weapons and armament. It is past what is spent here in the region by 10 or 15 times. A fraction of that would be sufficient to move us in the direction of low carbon. The world today spends 700 billion dollars on the subsidy of oil, a resource which we are depleting, and yes, we will continue to have oil as a very important part of the global energy matrix for the next dozens of years. But to spend 700 billion dollars today subsidizing oil, when we could take those resources and put them into other sectors of the economy that will move us in the direction of low carbon, makes absolutely no sense.

Public-Private Cooperation

Finally, amigas y amigos, this is then all about leadership and public private sector cooperation. It is about leadership. I come from a small country, which is a developing nation, and yet we have made out of the green economy a tremendous business opportunity. In every aspect of the word, Costa Rica has 12-14% of its GDP that comes from this sector of the economy today. It is the fastest growing. It provides us with the most jobs, with the most investment opportunities, and this is a small developing nation. Imagine what other nations with more resources could do in the same direction. This is all about leadership and public private partnerships.

This part of the world has given to all of us two extraordinary leaders in this field. One is Mustapha Kamal Tolba who was the executive director of UNEP and who has been a precursor in these events; and the other one is sitting with us today, Mohamed El-Ashry, who led GEF, the Global Environmental Facility, and who has been a leader in every thought process dealing with the transition to low carbon. It is not just a coincidence that both are AFED veterans. And it is about public private partnerships. There is no need to wait for governments to act. There are already many elements on which the business sector can move forward and create wonderful business opportunities out of this. I chair the Carbon War Room, at which we identify sectors of the global economy where by reinventing business models, we can make good business opportunities out of mitigating climate change, by reducing carbon emissions at the gegaton level. There are 25 sectors of the global economy where that can be done. Shipping is one of them. But greening buildings and energy efficiency are two more fields where we could be doing a lot in this region and the world over. In that sense, the report which has been put out by AFED, constitutes a very good footprint for action. And action it is what we are convened to undertake in the world of today.