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 report – The World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation (251 pages). The survey says $1.9 trillion per year will be needed over the next 40 years for incremental investments in green technologies. At least $1.1 trillion of that will need to be made in developing countries to meet increasing food and energy demands. 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.
This UN study is asking for 3% of world GDP for an accelerated conversion to green technologies, revamping agriculture according to their agenda and tossed in poverty elimination. I see zero chance of this proposal being adopted. They are asking for 20 times more than what was rejected at Copenhagen. It is interesting to see what kinds of plans get created by the United Nations and to imagine what the world would be like if these kinds of plans actually had serious consideration.
The long lifetimes of power plants, refineries, buildings and energy infrastructure make any energy transition necessarily a long-term affair. Global replacement costs of existing fossil fuel and nuclear power infrastructure are estimated at, at least, $15 trillion–$20 trillion (between one quarter and one third of global income).
Many countries are already making efforts to foster a greener energy supply system, including through investments in energy innovation, feed-in tariffs and other price measures, and regulatory measures and efficiency standards designed to promote energy efficiency and diffusion of renewable and clean sources of energy. The Survey indicates, however, that the pace of progress of technological change is nowhere near that needed to reach the goal of full decarbonization of the global energy system by 2050.
In accelerating technological transformation to meet emissions and energy-use targets, the Survey recommends that policies and actions be guided by four key goals.
Improving energy efficiency in end use without expanding consumption where energy-use levels are already high
Reducing energy use through technological change—entailing production of factory
equipment, home appliances and automobiles that are more energy-efficient—is potentially as important as installing clean energy supply facilities. This will, however, require a quantum increase in support for research and deployment in a relatively neglected area. In order for macrolevel gains to be reaped from end-use efficiencies, it is important that improved energy efficiency not be allowed to become the basis for an increase in activity and consumption in developed countries and that such increases be permitted only in countries that are still overcoming energy and income deficits.
Supporting a broad energy technology development portfolio globally while adapting more mature technologies in specific locations
A wide range of technologies exist for producing clean energy and reducing energy intensity of production and consumption. Most experts concur that Governments, in particular advanced economies, should promote the development of a broad portfolio of technologies (including renewables such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower) along the full chain of technology development (research, development and demonstration, market formation, diffusion and commercial adaptation). Most developing countries may opt for a more focused portfolio, given that their entry into energy technological transformation would take place at mature stages of the process.
Supporting more extensive experimentation and discovery periods
Support for technological development must also allow for experimentation sufficient to ensure that the more efficient technologies are scaled up, with the end goal being, in all cases, commercial viability. Government support programmes should ensure that consistent improvement of technologies is focused towards widespread usability beyond the demonstration stage and should avoid a premature locking in of suboptimal technologies that are not viable in non-specialized situations.
Using “smart” governance and accountability strategies in energy-related technological development
It is important, at the global and national levels, to expand oversight by independent and broadly representative technical bodies of the allocation of public funds for technological development. Support programmes should have sufficient flexibility to provide and withdraw resources based on potential and opportunity cost considerations. Governments can subsidize and reward efforts by private companies to achieve progressively higher energy efficiencies in end-use products such as factory equipment, cars and home appliances. An excellent example of such an approach is Japan’s Top Runner programme, which turns the most efficient product into a standard to be met by other manufacturers within a given time period. Upgrading towards technologies that are low on emissions and highly energy efficient should be a key objective of industrial policy.
The proposed reshaping of national development efforts and strengthened international commitment in the areas of technological development and cooperation, external assistance, investment finance and trade rules will require stronger mechanisms of global governance and coordination. Within the next three to four decades, all of these efforts must “add up” to achieving what today seems to be a set of almost unattainable targets, including a reduction in per capita carbon emissions by almost three fourths and the eradication of poverty, which will require an almost 10 times greater availability of modern energy sources by those now counted as poor.
The Survey recognizes that the bulk of the efforts to carry out a technological
transformation must occur at the country level and build upon local conditions and
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
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