Creating the climate for change

Posted: 1 June 2004

Author: Klaus Toepfer

As the world meets in Bonn this week to discuss the future of renewable energy, Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), calls on the world to look beyond the oil crisis to two more fundamental threats.

The world is currently focused on a rising price of oil amidst immediate and critical security concerns, but there looms two deeper and moreinsidious global threats with perhaps an even greater scope to disrupt long-term national and international security. These threats -environmental degradation and poverty - are a two-headed hydra threatening the very fabric of our economic and democratic systems.

If this seems like just another 'the sky is falling' bit of scare mongering, consider that one-third of the world's population - nearly 2billion men women and children - live on less than US$2 per day. This meagre income often does not provide enough to eat, let alone access toelectricity, clean water and education.

These people must rely on poor quality fuels such as wood, crop wastes and dung burned in inefficient stoves to cook food and keep warm, creating significant indoor pollution that leads to respiratory disease and other health problems. Such fuels also contribute to the loss of local forests, water pollution and smog.

The world's poorest households are also on the front lines of climate change, which many scientists - and the insurance industry - believe is already advancing in the form of a greater frequency and magnitude of catastrophic weather events.

National security

Governments are slowly realising that national security and environmental security are two sides of the same coin.

As Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State put it so succinctly in a recent edition of UNEP's Our Planet magazine, "Sustainable development is a security imperative. Poverty, environmental degradation and despair, aredestroyers or people, of societies, of nations. This unholy trinity can destabilize countries, even entire regions".

Fortunately, there are solutions.

At the core of development is the need for energy. Clean, modern and sustainable forms of energy to drive sustainable development and reduceenvironmental impacts are available now and affordable, particularly if the environmental and social costs of fossil fuels are included in their price.

Further, even small improvements to the type and quality of energy available for rural communities in developing countries can produce significant environmental, economic and social outcomes.

The experience of international development during the past decade has shown that helping local communities to help themselves requires a firm and long-term commitment of both time and money - though often in vastly different forms from past international aid programmes.

In an ideal world there would be no subsidies to mature technologies and all environmental, security and other external social costs would beincluded in the price of energy. In the real world, there remain huge subsidies for conventional technologies, fewer subsidies for renewable energy, and hardly any social or environmental costs included in our energyprices.

This must change.

Instead of climate change, air pollution and energy poverty we need to create the climate for change.

But change will only come from a strong and unwavering commitment. It is time to get down to business. Sustainable energy is needed for sustainable development, but investment is needed for sustainable energy. This investment must be made not just in technology, but also in people and skills that can use this technology for sustainable development.

Fuel cells

Let's be very clear: the many different forms of renewable energy will not enter the mainstream without substantially more support for research and development, better incentives, and further developed markets where the environmental and social costs are included in the price of energy. In our energy policies, we need to understand that strength, clarity and stability are the characteristics that attract capital from the private sector.

Many have criticised such policies and commitments as being too costly, or too damaging to our economies. But this doesn't have to be so.

The United Nations believes this week's conference in Bonn is an important step in adding to the commitments voiced by governments at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg two years ago. It will also be a chance to "invent" a new future.

As Thomas Edison once observed, "The best way to predict the future is to invent it".

Perhaps the future is a hydrogen economy with fuel cells powered by hydrogen split from water by the electricity of wind turbines or rooftopsolar cells, or even hydrogen generated by algae growing in ponds on our increasing amount of salt-affected land. Or perhaps it is something stillgestating in the imagination.

In this spirit, let us diverge, now, from "business as usual" to create - at the same time - a clean and secure energy supply, a healthy environment and a world free from poverty.

Related link: UNEP