Revolution and realism required: UN report

I’ve been looking at the The World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation which Gareth drew attention to in his recent post.  It’s a long document prepared by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), not intended for casual consumption, and I haven’t read all 250 pages.  But the theme chosen for the year’s survey is fundamental for the challenge of climate change and it’s somewhat cheering just to see the title.  I thought it worth highlighting some of the content.

The survey is quite clear on the necessity for a green technological transformation. Our progress over the past two centuries has been at a cost to the natural environment which cannot continue.

“About half of the forests that covered the earth are gone, groundwater resources are being depleted and contaminated, enormous reductions in biodiversity have already taken place and, through increased burning of fossil fuels, the stability of the planet’s climate is being threatened by global warming.”

There have to be new development pathways. DESA’s mission is to promote development for all. The global green technological transformation 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. Moreover it will need to be greater in scale and achievable within a much shorter time-frame than the first industrial revolution.

The survey focuses on three elements of the transformation: sustainable energy, sustainable food security, and reducing human harm from increasing natural disasters.

It is almost brutally realistic about the renewable energy transformation. We have four decades in which to achieve it if we are to have any hope of limiting global warming to two degrees. The scope of current national and global policies and programmes simply doesn’t add up to the necessary global emission reduction targets, and the expectations from what we are doing are overly optimistic. The pace of the global energy transition has actually slowed significantly since the 1970s and public spending for energy-related research and development in developed countries is still well below that obtaining in the 1970s and early 1980s. Scaling up known technologies is more demanding than is commonly acknowledged. The survey calls for a reality check of current plans so that realistic and well-targeted initiatives can be devised at a far greater scale. But along with buckets of cold water it offers many suggestions for ways in which the issue can be tackled more comprehensively and successfully. It points to the significant economic opportunities along the way for both developed and emerging market economies, but adds that poorer developing countries must receive support from the international community.  It’s a sober but not ultimately pessimistic survey of the way ahead for energy.

Food security is in deep difficulty. The world needs to increase food production considerably as the population continues to grow, but if this is attempted using current agricultural technology, practices and land-use patterns the result will be increased greenhouse gas emissions, more water pollution and land degradation. The first green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s was not in fact all that green. It increased agricultural yields as much through intensive use of irrigation water and environmentally harmful chemical fertilizers and pesticides, as through the introduction of new seed varieties. Reduction in the use of chemical inputs is needed, along with more efficient use of energy, water and natural resources, and significant improvement of storage facilities and marketing to reduce waste. There are many green technologies and sustainable practices which can be deployed, including  low-tillage farming, crop rotation and interplanting, water harvesting and recycling, water-efficient cropping, agroforestry and integrated pest management. Biotechnology has a part to play, and the development of new high-yielding varieties of crops, a central focus of the first green revolution in agriculture, should continue. The survey lays considerable emphasis on small farm holders in developing countries, since it is in this area that most gains in terms of both productivity increases and rural poverty reduction can be achieved.

On the issue of protection from natural disaster the survey points out that the frequency of such disasters has quintupled over the past 40 years. Most of this increase can be accounted for by the greater incidence of floods, storms, droughts and extreme temperatures associated with climate change. Developing countries are more vulnerable and suffer the most. Disaster risk management and adaptation to climate change in developed and developing countries alike have not been mainstreamed into broader decision-making processes. In practice, responses are most often largely event-driven. They need instead to be embedded in national development strategies. The technologies that can be employed in this process are briefly canvassed.

The survey then devotes a couple of chapters to the national policies needed to enable green development and to the scaling up and reform in international cooperation and finance required to achieve the global technological revolution.

The survey adds up to a big call. “A technological revolution is needed which will be like no other.” There are readily usable starting points to jump-start the shift to a green economy, but the challenges lie in how to further improve these techniques, adapt them to need, scale up the applications so as to bring down significantly their costs, and enable their diffusion and knowledge-sharing. Added to this is the high cost of moving out of the non-green and non-sustainable technologies which existing economies are locked into, albeit a cost much lower than that which will accrue if we don’t move.

The technological revolution for a green economy will consequently, the survey declares, be fundamentally different from previous revolutions in three specific ways:

“First, it will have to take place within a specific and limited time period. Given existing pressures on our ecosystem, the goal would need to be achieved within the next three to four decades – a huge challenge, given that diffusion of technologies is a slow process…

“Second, Governments will have to assume a much more central role, the limited time frame being one key reason for this. Under current circumstances, there needs to be an acceleration of technological innovation and diffusion, which is unlikely to occur if they are left to market forces…

“Third, since the environmental challenges are global, the green technological revolution will need to be facilitated by intense international cooperation.”

At a remove from the hurly-burly of national politics the UN document sets out the inescapable realities which governments must come to terms with if they care about humanity’s future. The likes of Tony Abbott and Don Brash and innumerable US Republican politicians, urged on by vested interests in the brown economy, may vigorously deny and delay in the interim, but the imperative doesn’t go away and we can be grateful for yet another statement of it in this patiently argued survey.

10 thoughts on “Revolution and realism required: UN report”

  1. As you can see, renewable energy is just a hippie pipe dream.

    “In the past three decades, electricity per capita has stayed flat in Californian while it has risen 60% in the rest of the country. If all Americans had the same per capita electricity demand as Californians, we would cut electricity consumption 40%.”

    Green jobs continue to grown in California amidst the economic downturn

    A Clean Energy Competitiveness Strategy for America

    “China has doubled its installed wind capacity each year for the past five years, including in 2009, when it installed 13GW of new turbines, surpassing the United States as the largest wind market in the world.”
    (combined with the 6.3 GW in 2008, thats 19.3 GW in two years.)

    The U.S. installed 18.2 GW of wind energy in a recent two year period and now has about 40 GW. China has 45 GW and is on track for 200 GW by 2020.

    Now China is focusing on solar, so expect similar growth.

    Saudi Arabia: The New Solar Frontier
    Posted on July 3, 2011 by Tatjana de Kerros
    Saudi Arabia to invest $100 billion in solar.

    GE, Google, Siemens, Dow Chemical, Intel and other big corporations are investiong in solar and other renewables.

    GE’s CEO predicts PV solar will be at grid parity in 5 years.

    Developing countries without extensive power grids can largely skip them.
    Locally produced power makes lots of sense in many parts of the world.

    “India’s Poor: Leapfrogging the Grid”

    China building ambitious “Solar Valley City” to advance solar industry
    According to reports, around 800,000 people in Dezhou are employed in the solar industry, or one in three people of working age.

    South Korea has recently become a major market for solar PV cells, increasing its new annual installed capacity six-fold to make it the fourth largest PV market in the world

    French nuclear giant Areva buys Ausra, says solar thermal power market may increase 30 fold by 2020

    “CSP can also share its steam turbine with biomass, a strategy the Chinese are pursuing, or with natural gas”

    The estimate of solar energy potential is more than 100X that of wind power, at over 2,000 TW.

  2. Sailrick – great work, but Steve won’t read it. You’re merely dishing out dollops of boring old Reality 1.0.

    Steve is made of sterner stuff. He lives in Libereality™ (that’s Libertarian + Reality – neat, huh?) As a consequence his confirmation bias is robust to the point of impermeability, so I’m afraid he actually can’t discern meaning in any arrangement of words unless they fit the Fox filter first.

    By the way Steve, while we’ve got you again, how about an answer on what the actual scientists at your institution makes of your heroic ultra (or should that be Post-) rational position?

    1. Cheers! Reading that has brightened my morning further. Agree, Wrathall and his fellow libertarians are unteachable.

      Heard Trenberth’s talk at NIWA Greta Pt yesterday – excellent. Only marred by a brief irrational fact-free rant at question time by one member of the audience – I suspect it was Vincent Gray (only saw the back of his head).

        1. “No fool like an old fool” ! (I can say that as a “senior”).

          There’s a mention in the Herald online (I think it was) of Treadgold trying to get Lord Moronckton to debate a climate scientist in NZ!

          Edit – oops, just saw that in another thread.

  3. Speaking of Treadgold, I see that he has signalled his intention to bring the infamous Lord Monckton to New Zealand. I’m not certain but I suspect that it might be an effort to sow some seeds of doubt:

    They needn’t bother as there is already ample doubt. I was talking to a vegan a while ago and thought I would press the climate change button thinking she would be switched on regarding the inconventient truth, All I got was a rant about CO2 being a natural gas, fertiliser for plants, a money making scam for scientists, the whole nine yards. Very difficult to explain why they should read and understand HT when you can’t get a word in, and be polite all at the same time.

    All I can say is that there will come a day when the likes of Treadgold and Monckton will be arrested and tried in the modern equivalent of the Nuremberg trials for attempted omnicide.

    1. “All I can say is that there will come a day when the likes of Treadgold and Monckton will be arrested and tried in the modern equivalent of the Nuremberg trials for attempted omnicide.”

      Can we put them in stocks and throw lumps of coal at them?

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