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Africa: Young Continent, Great Opportunities

Achim Steiner, head of the United Nations Environment Program, speaks about the potential of a young continent's economy and sees a positive trend in energy policy in Africa.

Simon Staufer: You have lived and worked in Africa for many years. What do you personally associate with the continent?

Achim Steiner: A continent that's home to a billion people, with 54 countries and tremendous cultural diversity, cannot be summed up in a few words. But the image that comes immediately to mind is that of Africa's young people – full of energy, hope and adaptability.

What do you see as the future of Africa's emerging and developing countries?

Over the past years, Africa has undergone a remarkable transformation. Its national economies are poised to take good advantage of their dynamic population growth, rapid urbanization and wealth of natural resources – although they also face major challenges. One important question is this: How can Africa continue to develop and industrialize while protecting its natural resources? The "green economy," which is burgeoning throughout Africa, is increasingly important in this regard.

What role does the financial sector take on in the green economy?

"Green loans" can help to open new sources of financing and promote sustainable development. Africa's financial markets play a key role in this. The banks in sub-Saharan Africa are well-capitalized, and both the stock markets and the bond markets have seen steady growth. International private capital inflows have more than quadrupled since 2002.

Is there a conflict between sustainable development and the industrialization that accompanies economic growth?

Africa is among the regions of the world that are most vulnerable to climate change and other environmental risks. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently published a report that describes the negative effects of climate change on public health and water resources. Agriculture, the energy sector and tourism are other areas threatened by climate change. Africa needs to find a balance between
its environmental, economic and industrial development, and its social objectives.

But do you see trends that give you reason for optimism?

Indeed, there are many positive examples of a turnaround in energy policy. For example, five years ago Morocco was still importing 95 percent of the fuel used for generating the country's electricity. By 2020, thanks to a massive investment program, renewable energies will provide 40 percent of the total. Or consider South Africa, which has rich coal deposits: In the years ahead, the country will invest 14 billion euros in a sustainable power grid. "Sustainable industrial development" should be the watchword for Africa. At UNEP, we work with decision-makers at the national and regional levels. Among other goals, we have committed to combatting climate change, with our focus on access to cleaner energy, support for environmental protection and sustainable land use.

The Youngest Continent

Half of all Africans are below the age of 20.5. If the entire world population were divided into two age groups, the middle would lie at neary 30 years of age.

In addition to environmental and climate problems, Africa is confronting the worst Ebola epidemic in history.

The emergence and the resurgence of infectious diseases are closely connected with environmental changes. With regard to Ebola, UNEP is actively investigating whether trade in "bushmeat" contributed to the epidemic in West Africa, because the great apes have long been known to contract the virus. The epidemic may be the most powerful warning to date that our continued deforestation is creating a highway for new pathogens to spread to humans. Although the infection rate has declined in 2015, the economic repercussions of Ebola are massive.

Would you venture a look into the future?

Africa has an enormous wealth of resources, and the average age of its population is less than 20 years. Given this potential, surprises are in store for the many skeptics who are not yet aware of how much is happening on the continent.