Revolution and realism required: UN report

By Bryan Walker 14/07/2011

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.