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Helen Clark on low-carbon world

IN a New Zealand opt-in website poll in 2009, former Prime Minister Helen Clark was voted the "Greatest Living New Zealander." And at that time, Clark was already working in her office on the 38th floor of the UN headquarter in New York.

Since April 2009, she has been the administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the third-highest UN position. She is also the first woman to hold the job.

In mid-October, Clark visited the World Expo in Shanghai and delivered the keynote speech at a culture forum organized by UNDP China and Jiefang Daily Media Group at the International Convention Center. Her speech was titled "China's Low Carbon Future: A Dialogue on Green City and Green Life."

Clark has an impressive background. In 1999, she was elected New Zealand's second female prime minister. She served for nine years and is credited for numerous improvements in New Zealand. She created a very stable and solid government; the country has maintained increasing economic growth and low unemployment, both rare among industrial countries.

New Zealand, under her leadership, mapped out resolute foreign policies, maintained New Zealand's status as a nuclear-free zone and criticized the decision to go to war in Iraq without UN approval.

After many years in politics, Clark has also come in for her share of criticism.

Her response, "Sticks and stones might break my bones ..."

In the culture forum, Clark discussed climate change and low-carbon living before an audience that included 600 Expo volunteers and university students in Shanghai.

Q: What's your view on the UN climate conference at Copenhagen, which concluded without positive outcomes?

A: There is an old proverb which says "We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children." Decisions our leaders make today, whether they be presidents or teachers, prime ministers or parents, can have a lasting influence on what happens in our lives tomorrow. This is especially true when it comes to protecting our shared planet and the ecosystems on which all our lives depend.

The sad truth is that if this generation fails to address the urgent challenges of our times - poverty, climate change, loss of biodiversity - it is mainly the next generations which will suffer the consequences. Politicians and world leaders cannot tackle climate change alone. The fight to save the world's ecosystems - and the lives of those who depend on them - cannot merely be a movement of the experts or the activists of the world.

Q: How do you assess China's work on climate issues and environmental protection?

A: These are impressive achievements for which the Chinese people can be very proud. Indeed, China has many lessons learned, technologies, and other resources which can help other developing countries to reduce poverty, improve education, and pursue low-carbon development paths. China therefore has a historic opportunity to be a global pioneer in building low-carbon, prosperous, and harmonious cities °?- from scratch.

China's efforts to use more renewable energy - energy which is clean and better for the environment - and its new policy on low-carbon pilot cities bear witness to China's awareness of these opportunities. In the renewable energy sector, China is already a leading global player. Last year, China swept past the rest of the world to become the largest manufacturer of wind turbines. China is also the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels. There is growing demand for more of these green energy solutions globally, and this will no doubt create more green jobs in the very near future.

Q: How severe is the climate change problem?

A: Now, the inconvenient truth is that climate change threatens to stall, or even reverse some of the important progress China and other countries have made. For example, we are seeing increasingly rapid changes to the natural environment and the livelihoods that the poor depend upon. These are affecting agricultural production and food security. They are causing increased hardship for farmers and their families. And they are having significant knock-on effects on local and national economies.

China has certainly had its share: this year floods affected 7 million hectares of crops, impacting 113 million people, and resulting in direct losses amounting to US$21 billion. At the same time, drought in many of China's provinces has left 20 million residents with drinking water shortages and caused direct economic losses of US$2.8 billion.

The longer term impacts of climate change are also adding to already existing vulnerabilities around the world. Rising sea levels threaten the very existence of small island states and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers will pose a serious challenge for many countries - including China.

Q: Does rapid urbanization worsen climate change and threaten the environment?

A: Let's take the city of Shanghai as an example. Shanghai is one of the most modern cities in China, and in the world. It hosts the world's first low-carbon World Expo. It is a model for other cities in China. But cities like Shanghai are at the forefront of climate change.

They are large CO2 emitters, and they are also vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, due to their concentration of population and infrastructure. The urban population is growing rapidly and by 2030, it is estimated that it will exceed 1 billion people.

Having so many people living in cities can lead to higher carbon emissions, greater consumption, and greater demand for services and infrastructure. This will exert even greater pressures on efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions.

Q: How is low-carbon living possible during rapid urbanization?

A: China faces diverse challenges which need to be managed in the move toward a low-carbon economy, such as a large and growing population, the need to maintain high economic growth, and to sustain rising living standards.

Well-managed urbanization can also be beneficial to the achievement of development goals. Cities create jobs, attract businesses, and bring together resources to generate new ideas, innovation and productive use of technology.

Q: Please describe your own low-carbon living.

A: I try to live as near as possible to the office, then I can walk to work. I strictly sort all garbage and wastes; I try to recycle and reuse daily goods. I encourage you to read the book "Our Part" that was launched here in Shanghai by UNDP China's national Goodwill Ambassador Zhou Xun.

The key message of the book is that each and every one of us can do our part to protect the environment and lead low-carbon lifestyles - it is up to each and every one of us to chart a path to a more sustainable and prosperous low-carbon future. Every little bit of action, no matter how big or small, makes a positive difference.


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