UN report finds world needs incremental $1.9 trillion invested in green technologies to avert “planetary catastrophe”; global per capita cap on primary energy consumption of 70 GJ/yr may be required
Humanity is close to breaching the sustainability of Earth, and needs a technological revolution greater and faster than the industrial revolution to avoid “a major planetary catastrophe,” according to a new United Nations report. The reports estimates that incremental green investment of about 3% of world gross product (WGP) (about $1.9 trillion in 2010) would be required to overcome poverty; increase food production to eradicate hunger without degrading land and water resources; and avert the climate change catastrophe. At least one-half of the required investments would have to be realized in developing countries.
Given the limited time frame for achieving the required technological transformation, the required global level of green investments would need to be reached within the next few years, according to The World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation, published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).
Major investments will be needed worldwide in the developing and scaling up of clean energy technologies; sustainable farming and forestry techniques; climate-proofing of infrastructure; and in technologies reducing non-biological degradable waste production, according to the report.
It is rapidly expanding energy use, mainly driven by fossil fuels, that explains why humanity is on the verge of breaching planetary sustainability boundaries through global warming, biodiversity loss, and disturbance of the nitrogen-cycle balance and other measures of the sustainability of the earth’s ecosystem. A comprehensive global energy transition is urgently needed in order to avert a major planetary catastrophe
Technological transformation, greater in scale and achievable within a much shorter time frame than the first industrial revolution, is required. The necessary set of new technologies must enable today’s poor to attain decent living standards, while reducing emissions and waste and ending the unrestrained drawdown of the Earth’s non-renewable resources.
Staging a new technological revolution at a faster pace and on a global scale will call for proactive government intervention and greater international cooperation. Sweeping technological change will require sweeping societal transformation, with changed settlement and consumption patterns and better social values.—The World Economic and Social Survey 2011
The Survey recommends that policies and actions to accelerate technological transformation to meet emissions and energy-use targets be guided by four key goals:
Improving energy efficiency in end use without expanding consumption where energy-use levels are already high.
Supporting a broad energy technology development portfolio globally while adapting more mature technologies in specific locations.
Supporting more extensive experimentation and discovery periods.
Using “smart” governance and accountability strategies in energy-related technological development.
The clean energy technological transformation. The global sustainable energy transition needs to be achieved within four decades, according to the repot—a significantly faster rate for energy transitions than in the past. In addition, global carbon dioxide emissions have been increasing.
Global CO2 emissions have increased at an annual rate of more than 3 per cent, considerably faster than in previous decades (van Vuuren and Riahi, 2008). The past decade was the first in two centuries with increasing CO2 emissions intensities, owing to a “coal revival”, in contrast with the rapid conversion to natural gas in the 1990s. In 2010, the global share of coal reached an estimated 29 per cent, which in relative terms was higher than, and in absolute terms about twice as large as, at the time of the first oil crisis, in 1973. In the 2000s, China alone added more coal power capacity each year than the total installed capacity in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (International Energy Agency, 2010b, p. 202).
These trends, which are diametrically opposed to declared greenhouse gas mitigation goals and targets, are by no means limited to emerging economies. Even in Germany, a country with one of the most ambitious Government goals for greenhouse gas mitigation, 10 coal power plants were under construction and another 12 coal power plants were in the pipeline (Bundesnetzagentur, 2009). These fossil-fuel-based capacities will remain operational for decades and make greenhouse gas reduction efforts increasingly difficult.
In contrast with the actual trend of ever more rapid increases in greenhouse gas emissions, global emissions would need to be reduced by 50-80 per cent by 2050 and turn negative in the second half of this century, in order to stabilize CO2 concentrations at about 450 parts per million by volume (ppmv), a target recommended by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and agreed upon at the sixteenth session of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Cancun, Mexico, from 29 November to 10 December 2010. Essentially, this would require making the power and transport sector carbon-free worldwide by mid-century, in view of the limitations associated with replacing industrial processes based on fossil fuels.
Today’s CO2 emitting devices and infrastructures alone imply cumulative emissions of about 496 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 from 2010 and 2060, leading to atmospheric concentrations of about 430 ppmv (Davis, Caldeira and Matthews, 2010). In other words, even an immediate global stop to building new fossil-fired capacities would lead close to the envisaged global target of 450 ppmv by mid-century. This puts into perspective the enormous ambition of the global target, given the long-lived capital stock and rapidly rising energy demand.—The World Economic and Social Survey 2011
At the same time, the report adds, a global sustainable energy policy must take into special consideration the 3 billion poor people who aspire to gaining access to electricity and modern energy services.
|Claims that “the technology exists to solve the climate problem” underestimate the scale of efforts required.|
The scope of current national and global policies and programs does not “add up” to the scale of actions needed to meet global emission reduction targets, the report finds. Paradoxically, they are also overly ambitious in terms of their expected outcomes and are inconsiderate of certain biophysical, techno-economic and socio-political limits to scaling up known technologies. The report calls for a reality check of current plans so that realistic and well-targeted initiatives can be devised at a far greater scale.
The report finds that there is a need for comprehensive, strategic and systemic approaches that emphasize performance goals, niche markets and technology portfolios, especially those related to end-use. In order to take pressure off the technological innovation imperative, individual limits of 70 gigajoules (GJ) primary energy use per capita and 3 tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita by 2050 may need to be considered.
The report notes that a 70 GJ per capita limit means that the average European would have to cut his or her present energy consumption by about half and the average resident of the United States of America by about three quarters. Such energy-use and emissions caps would not affect the development-related aspirations of developing countries.
Specific guiding recommendations made by the report include:
|By their very nature, energy policy interventions will induce structural economic change. Energy policies also tend to have strong distributive effects, benefiting some industries and household groups more than others. The degree and nature of the required structural change related to a sustainable energy transformation will also vary from country to country. The distributive impacts will also differ accordingly.|
Learn from but be aware of the inevitable discontinuities of the historical past. Policy-induced scaling up and deployment of new technologies without lengthy formative periods of experimentation and testing could lead to additional risks and might lock in inferior technologies, the report notes. Historically, performance and quality advantages of new energy technologies compared with the lower energy quality (intermittency and low power density) of modern renewable energy technologies, led to their early adoption among price-insensitive consumers.
Fossil fuel resource constraints together with externality pricing might make renewables more cost-competitive, but competing land use will be a constraint on the large-scale deployment of renewables. Also, overcoming vested interests is essential, in view of the fact that, historically, it is political efforts and public infrastructure investment that have set innovator countries apart from laggards.
Manage uncertainties with portfolio diversification, scenario analysis, and a balanced mix of technology-neutral and technology-banded approaches. Picking technological winners ex ante should be avoided, the report says, while developing broad technology portfolios should be promoted. Doing this will provide a hedge against the risks of inherently uncertain outcomes of technological innovation. Failures vastly outnumber successes in both the private and public sectors. Sufficient time and resources need to be committed for experimentation before scaling up, so as to prevent any premature locking in of suboptimal technologies and clusters.
Technology portfolios should represent the whole energy system and consider all innovation stages, so as to keep options open, but should avoid large-scale transfer of technology risks to the public sector.
Pursue policies that promote high-performance innovations in niche markets. Policies designed to create market niches based on superior-quality technologies should be prioritized in order to shield them from full commercial competition during the initial development stages when experience is gained. At present, there are only a few evident niches in which cost-insensitive end-users might be persuaded to pay for environmental public goods.
Pursue innovation policy that is stable, credible, aligned and well timed. Stable and consistent expectations about the direction and shape of the innovation system, in contrast with existing practices which are mostly characterized by stop-go policies, are necessary if innovation actors are to commit resources. Innovation policies need to be aligned, which requires coherent support throughout the technology life cycle, but misalignment appears to be the norm in most countries. Most importantly, policies should be avoided that compress the formative phase unduly and support premature scaling up, as does the current approach taken in promoting CCS, for instance.
Innovations in end-use technologies are important. Public innovation expenditures for highly energy efficient end-use technologies need to be increased. Support for such technologies in the past has proved both cost-effective and successful, thereby generating high social returns on investment. Much greater emphasis needs to be put globally on improving end-use energy efficiency, complemented by behavioral change and limits imposed on energy, land, water and materials use.
A global “Top Runner Program”. A global programme that follows the rationale of Japan’s Top Runner Programme should be considered, the report says. Such a program would promote cooperation among countries, communities and individuals so as to achieve lower primary energy use and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
The report comes out yearly. Last year’s survey called for a major overhaul of the machinery for international finance, aid and trade.