Taking on the world

Johannesburg will this month host the World Summit on Sustainable Development, where nations will attempt to map out concrete actions and set key targets.

Siàƒ¢n Green looks at what role the energy industry can expect to play in a sustainable future.

Ten years on from the Rio Earth Summit, few of the goals of Agenda 21 have been realised. There are at least 1.1bn people in the world who lack access to safe drinking water, and 2.4bn with no access to adequate sanitation. Some 2.5bn have no access to modern energy services. Over eight per cent of children in developing countries die before the age of five.

Although attempts to promote human development and reverse environmental degradation have not generally been effective over the last decade, the United Nations insists that Agenda 21 – the agreement that was adopted at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit – remains a long-term vision for sustainable development.

The upcoming World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, South Africa, aims to reinforce the key undertakings of Agenda 21 and reinvigorate governments to take positive action to relieve poverty without harming the environment.

Energy will be a key issue at Johannesburg alongside biodiversity, health, water and agriculture. At the end of the ten-day meeting, it is hoped that a clear implementation plan will have been agreed upon that will set the way forward for a sustainable future.

Energy is a paradox of sustainable development: it makes economic growth and development possible, but can also cause major environmental damage.

One third of the world’s population lacks access to modern energy services. These people are generally poor, live in rural areas and rely on burning firewood or biomass to meet their energy needs. These fuels contribute to indoor air pollution, killing over one million children under five each year, according to the UN.

Access to modern energy services would improve standards of living and encourage economic growth. It would also lead to the increased use of fossil fuels and, therefore, an increase in emissions of greenhouse gases. “Energy supply in developing countries, and how to address these needs in the future is a major issue,” notes Lowell Flanders, a senior UN official working on the Summit.

But providing energy services to rural populations in developing countries will require a great deal of investment. “The main challenge is the amount of money that is required and where the money will come from,” says Flanders. “It is estimated that $100-300bn will be required over the next 20 years to build the infrastructure needed to reduce by half the number of people with no access to energy services. That’s a huge investment challenge.”

It is notable that official development assistance (ODA) flows from developed countries fell throughout the 1990s, from $58.3bn in 1992 to $53.1bn in 2000. And although in the recent Monterrey Conference on ODA the US and European nations agreed on new levels of ODA, they failed to earmark part of those funds for the sustainable development agenda.

“One of the main problems in the negotiations is determining what kind of financial commitment developed nations are prepared to make to help achieve some of these goals,” notes Flanders. “Developing countries say that without new commitments of financing and technologies, none of these goals are really achievable.”

Developing countries are also looking for technology transfer to improve the efficiency and performance of their energy systems.

But the summit is not purely about developing nations; it will also look at how the developed world can help to reduce the ‘ecological footprint’ of humanity. Important issues are increasing the use of renewable energy, improving energy efficiency and technological development.

“Developed countries need to diversify energy supplies through more efficient and innovative technologies and also increasing the share of new and renewable energy resources,” says Flanders.

“One of the sticking points in the discussions at the moment is whether targets should be set for the share of renewable energy in primary energy supply. A lot of the NGOs and civil society groups want to set a target of 15 per cent of total primary energy supply by 2010 for renewable energy.”

A related issue is Kyoto. While UN literature on the Johannesburg Summit says that the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol is one of the energy-related issues that the Summit will attempt to resolve, Flanders doubts that the conference will go as far as to call upon nations to ratify the Protocol.

“The US and a few others are opposed to the calling for all nations to ratify Kyoto. It would put them in a awkward position as they are opposed to Kyoto.”

Environmental groups fear that some industrialized nations, especially the US, will be against setting targets and could therefore scupper the sustainable development agenda. Nevertheless, the UN is adamant that the conference will be about implementation, and there is a general consensus that it is time for the rhetoric to stop and action to start.

In line with this, the UN is encouraging countries and businesses to announce plans for ‘Type II’ initiatives at Johannesburg. These voluntary initiatives would generally include plans for partnerships between governments, NGOs, civil groups and businesses to implement projects that demonstrate the principles of sustainable development. “We hope that some countries will come in and announce major initiatives for rural electrification, for example,” says Flanders.

The UN is confident that governments and other organizations at Johannesburg will reach agreement on the proposed implementation plan, even if key targets are watered down. But the implementation plan will not contain binding targets, and it is clear that for long-term success, governments will have to take the initiative, and the support of the business and industrial community is needed.

Energy and sustainable development: key facts

  • Some 2.5bn people lack access to modern energy services
  • World energy consumption is expected to grow at the rate of two per cent per year until 2020. If this rate continues, it will mean a doubling of energy consumption by 2035 relative to 1998
  • Fuelwood consumption is rising with population growth in developing nations
  • Global consumption of fossil fuels increased by ten per cent between 1992 and 1999. Per capita use remains highest in developed countries
  • Carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels accounts for 75 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions from human activities
  • Modern renewable energy sources account for about 4.5 per cent of total energy production

Source: United Nations

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