Friday, 10 June 2011

Baku’s Big Green Smile

You'd kind of think that Norway, or Sweden, or one of those scarily right-on nations would hold the record for having introduced the world's first eco-tax.  Not so.  It's in a very different corner of the European family that this particular green lightbulb first flickered into life.  Baku, Azerbaijan to be precise.  The capital of the easternmost nation in the Council of Europe.

Baku's crowning glory is the Boulevard, a 3km pedestrianised ribbon of tree-shaded parkland studded with cafes, bars and children's rides that curves around the Caspian seafront.  From early morning tracksuited joggers and brisk walkers, to the flirtatious and sharply dressed evening passagiata lasting well into the small hours, the Boulevard is the very last thing you expect to find in a small, oil-and-gas dominated, majority Muslim, former Soviet state.

What’s even more surprising is how this strip of green got here in the first place.  It stands, after all, on the edge of the desert of Gobustan.  On the Absheron Peninsula.  About as fertile as Brighton Beach.

The answer is to do with oil, trading, and one man’s vision.  Baku oil wells fuelled the world’s lamps from at least the time of Marco Polo (who wrote about them).  But it was in the c19th that Baku oil hit the big time.  With the world’s first drilled well (1849), the city began to attract big European names.  The Rothschilds and the Nobels set up shop (or more precisely mansion – both still standing today).  The world’s first oil tanker (a Nobel project) was built to transport Baku oil to Iran across the Caspian.  Baku boomed.

At the same time, the enterprising Mayor of Baku, one R.R. Hoven,  had the brilliant idea of putting an enlightened price on trading oil.  Fine, he said, bring your tankers here, do your deals, fill up, take the oil.  But you must bring them here loaded with fertile soil.

Inch by inch, tanker-load by tanker-load, the Boulevard took shape from 1880 (the year of Mayor Hoven’s green Eureka moment) onwards. 

Which is why today, instead of Dubai-style 500 year old Tuscan olive trees airfreighted in and plonked down in a shopping mall in a desert, there’s a living, breathing, diverse and mature green paradise on the shores of the Caspian.

I’m telling this story not just because I find the sheer creative beauty of it a joy, but because I think it poses a fantastic challenge for us today.

Looked at negatively it’s a polluter/trader pays principle.  If you’re a glass-half-full type, it’s an Environmental Business Bonus (EBB tm, you read it here first).

Mayor Hoven stood up to big business and wrote a rule book which transformed the quality of life for all future generations of the people of Baku.  So what is the Environmental Bonus that countries – particularly small countries rich in natural resources – can demand from the world as the price of doing business today?

The sad truth is we profit from the despoilation of far-away countries which often we prefer to know little about.  Putting a positive environmental legacy at the top of the agenda – making it a normal cost of doing business – is surely the least that can be asked of us.  I’m not just talking about business ‘cleaning up its act’ – I am talking about specific, creative projects which leave cities and countries with a big green smile on their faces.

Like the green ribbon of Baku’s fabulous Boulevard.