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Is energy contributing to sustainable development ?

Contribution to the RIO + 5 Review in 1997


| Introduction | Methodology | Conclusion | Documentary sources |

1) Introduction


The first Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) chaired by Gro Harlem Brundtland, Our Common Future (1987), highlighted that our world had to deal not with one, but with four related crises, which seem to have deepened since then.

First, despite rapid science and technology advances, we have not yet succeeded in eradicating poverty . An increase in poverty will be aggravated by rapid population growth: 90% of which will take place in non-industrialised countries, and predominantly in already overpopulated cities.

Second, economic growth no longer provides appropriate employment. It continues to pollute and deplete resources, creating more degradation of the environment, especially in poor countries whose environmental legal constraints are weak or nonexistent. Thus, in the past ten years, the gap between rich and poor has increased tremendously, worldwide, both within and between countries. Furthermore, the middle class, traditionally a factor in maintaining economic stability, is shrinking dangerously, precipitating more and more formerly autonomous families into difficulty, leading to social unrest.

Third, we have an ecological crisis due to soil erosion, water degradation and diminished availability, air pollution and climatic perturbations, as well as deforestation and disappearing biodiversity. International environmental conventions and agreements to protect natural resources have been signed, but some countries-signatories are openly violating them, despite the efforts of environmental organisations.

Finally, it has become obvious that our present style of development, and its energy systems, have been made possible by borrowing on the future, thus creating a possibly irreversible handicap for incoming generations.

Thus challenged by the prospect of an unsustainable future, governments have had to devise processes and institutions which might possibly bring about "sustainable development". Once coined, the expression has given rise to multiple attempts at defining the new concept. This has being going on for approximately a decade, during which the United Nations held a number of international conferences on the "sustainable development" issue.

Possibly the most ambitious international conference ever held was the Earth Summit in Rio (1992). Like Our Common Future, Rio's work programme, "Agenda 21", does not have a specific chapter on energy. But the effects of energy use are felt everywhere. Energy is used in all production processes and its by-products are the major contributors to almost every kind of pollution, including climatic perturbations. And, indeed, in Rio was borne the Climate Change Convention, which was the first worldwide attempt at internalising some environmental costs into energy planning and decision-making.

Five years later, we have a better understanding about controlling pollution, and governments now realise that they have to make momentous strategic decisions. This is reflected in the Assessment Reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, made up of thousands of scientists worldwide, and in National Communications, reports that governments have to present on their efforts to control greenhouse gas emissions.

These efforts are carefully reviewed by the United Nations Framework Climate Change Secretariat and expertly analysed by the worldwide environmental community, which is mobilised by the Climate Action Network. Limiting levels of greenhouse gas emissions will bring about improvements in energy efficiency as well as trigger the expansion of renewables and the development of new clean and lean technologies, provided that the liberalisation and privatisation of the energy sector are compatible with the respect of the Climate Change Convention.

The application of the sustainable development concept to the climate change issue has placed energy in the limelight. However the energy-side of the climate change debate focuses only on the contribution of fossil fuels to the formation of greenhouse gases. The other polluting aspects of energy production, transmission and use still escape the purview of international environmental conventions. They should not be forgotten.

Indeed, this unprecedented worldwide governmental effort to protect the environment from the some of the activities of the energy sector is taking place at the very time we are witnessing a deep and ambivalent mutation within our Western civilisations.

The globalisation of the world economy has only been possible because energy had become increasingly more available and affordable for the last hundred years or so. Cheap energy has helped make transportation of foreign goods cheaper than local production at local salaries. This evolution is now reaching its apex, after having put in jeopardy the reproductive system of life within its three spheres: economic, socio-cultural and natural. This apex, according to René Passet, coïncides, and even collides head on, with the emergence of the immaterial, the "digital revolution" symbolised by the computer as the new engine of development.

Indeed the supremacy of "heavy" energy, or polluting centralised "power", is now threatened on several other fronts as well. Elimination of fossil fuels subsidies, internalisation of environmental costs, better knowledge of renewables are changing the energy scene. Improved energy efficiency also reduces the use of other natural resources - by a factor of between four and ten according to Amory Lovins and Ulrich von Weizsäcker-, leading the world towards an increased dematerialisation of the economy with the restructuring of production processes and computerisation.

But what about the impacts of such changes on the environment? Are these changes a promise or a threat? More than ever vigilance should be the order of the day and the concept of sustainability will have to govern these changes so that the concerns evoked by the fourfold crisis presented by the UNCED Report can be dealt with appropriately.

On the social side, the dematerialisation of production and emergence of the "immaterial" civilisation also lead us into another world where a quarter, or half of the population willing and able to work will be indefinitely "available", unable to find gainful employment, i.e. unable to sustain itself in the "traditional" fashion. And this is likely to be the case in rich as well as in poor countries.

This new world will have very different energy requirements from those we now know, not only because of changing energy systems, but because the actors will have changed. With the globalisation of the economy, national governments see their area of influence decreasing steadily in relation to the rise of transnational activities and to the speed of urbanisation. Some cities are now bigger than whole countries and their demographic weight is increasing within almost every country. Some analysts see a clear correlation in several parts of the world between global economic integration and social and cultural fragmentation, or even sometimes desintegration. The sense of belonging is also changing.

The worldwide movement of economic liberalisation, witnessed after the demise of the Soviet bloc, has made regulations a despised mode of control of the economy. But capitalism has little better to offer to avoid these new threats for the environment and the quality of life. Consequently, citizens and cities' public authorities feel the urge to take hold of their own future and be empowered to do so; hence the need for capacity- and institution-building, not just in Southern countries, but in OECD countries as well.

This is why the big UN Conferences and most other world events following the Earth Summit attempted to define paths to implement Agenda 21, i.e. sustainable development, in the major spheres of demography, social and human rights, human habitat. Their focus is on the importance of revitalising the civil society, without waiting for government initiatives.

The issue of sustainable development in every human activity has thus officially become the paramount concern of every existing body, from the G7 to the E7, from the OECD member countries to the G77, from business organisations to labor unions and more seriously to networks of enlightened municipalities. This awareness could be seen as the result of twenty years of an environmental agenda, but in order to know if this is a victory for all, we need to assess the progress made.

2) Previous efforts at assessing energy performance


The above discourse has led to worthwhile efforts, and in particular to the development of sustainability indicators, once some type of consensus had emerged on a possible definition of sustainability. Some of these efforts in the field of energy are described briefly below.

In 1990, the Canadian National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy (NRTEE) commissioned a report from Marbek Resource Consultants. The report, "Rationale and Preliminary Family of National Indicators for Sustainable Energy Use" focussed on 15 macro level indicators and stressed the iterative character of such a process of selection of indicators. The initial selection comprised of five tables :

1) quantity of energy used;

2) environmental impact per unit of energy used;

3) long term resource availability;

4) energy productivity of the economy;

5) indicators association with additional production for export.

Further work was done for the NRTEEE in 1991 to include socio-economic considerations and measures of acceptance and implementation of action required to achieve sustainable development.

In 1993, the OECD issued a monograph "Indicators for the Integration of Environmental Concerns into Energy Policies", as proceedings to a 1990 workshop on the topic. It identifies three sets of energy-environment indicators structured around three themes :

1) sectoral trends of environmental significance;

2) environmental impacts of the energy sector (with respect to pollution and natural resource use);

3) economic linkages between energy and the environment.

These lists appear in Annex 1.

Some of these indicators are regularly part of the environmental review of the OECD on the "State of the Environment", which includes a section on energy.

In 1996, Ontario-Hydro, one of the world's major electric public utilities and member of the E7 Network, published its "Sustainable Development Report for 1995". After several years of studies and consultation, Ontario-Hydro came up with indicators fitting five broad areas of activity that define their performance and which they termed "pillars of sustainable development". They are :

1) environmental integrity

2) increasing energy and resource use efficiency

3) renewable energy - increasing development and use

4) financial integrity

5) social integrity

The corresponding indicators are listed in Annex 2. The sustainability reporting is accompanied by an impressive list of measures taken to enforce better sustainability and accompanied by an assessment of their success. To date, this report is by far, the most comprehensive document on energy sustainability monitoring. It is the one that comes the closest to illustrating the ideal concept of the "ecological footprint" (developed by Bill Rees and M. Wackernagel) and which states that "sustainability is about living equitably within our ecological means".

This concept appears also in the idea of the "ecological rucksack" weighted at the Wuppertal Institute by F. Schmidt-Bleek, and in other efforts attempting to take the carrying capacity of ecological systems into account. Let us mention in particular the project "Towards a Sustainable Europe" funded by the European Union. Lots of work is still needed to provide adequate data, especially since energy is only one part of the "footprint".

Agenda 21 called for the establishment of systems for Integrated Environmental and Economic Accounting (IEEA). In 1993, the UN Statistical Division (UNSD) published an interim handbook on the IEEA. UNSD and UNEP, in collaboration with research institutes and NGOs, are currently working on an operational and training manual for the implementation of the IEEA. The IEEA has been tested in a score of developing countries, but it has not yet gained acceptance from most industrialized countries.

As far as energy is concerned, the IEEA provides several accounts which could be used to monitor the sustainability implications of energy production and use.

First, the IEEA includes a physical account which describes the stock, stock changes, and quality changes of non-renewable energy assets such as petroleum and coal.

Second, the IEEA estimates monetary values of the depletion of these assets. These values are calculated in terms of the lost income-generating capacity of these assets. The estimates can be used to devise economic instruments, incentives, and regulatory measures to influence the use of these energy assets and promote the development of renewable energy sources.

Third, the IEEA includes an account of Emissions by Sectors, which cover the emissions of CO, CO2, SO2, NOx, TSP by a detailed classification of industries, government, househols, and the rest of the world. This information can be used to trace the origins of emissions and to observe the changes from year to year.

Fourth, the IEEA applies monetary values to the changes in air quality by using maintenance cost method, i.e. the amount that would be required to avoid or clean up the pollution to a predetermined level. This information can be used to develop policies to encourage the application of cost-efficient clean technologies.

Focusing strictly now on the climate issue, we can refer to other efforts on energy sustainability reporting:

1) national communications made yearly by governments as a requirement under the United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC);

2) the questionnaire developed by the Climate Action Network to report on governments' activities to reduce greenhouse gases emissions. See Annex 3.

3) the Sierra Club of Canada's yearly preparation of a Rio Report Card which grades the ten Canadian Provinces on their climate change commitments.

In the wake of the Istanbul Habitat II Conference, networks of cities (Energie-Cités, International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives-ICLEI, European Cities Network) have been developing criteria for urban sustainable development which stresses the importance of the environmental impacts of energy use. Progressive cities are already closely monitoring their performance in controling greenhouse gases emissions.

In fact, cities and NGOs are the most dynamic promoters and users of energy indicators, reflecting civil society's concern for the preservation of the environment and their lack of confidence in central government fulfilling that responsibility adequately.

These efforts on indicators are recent, and some have already been put on the back burner, but this cannot stop the progress in the delivery of better data which they initially triggered. Presently the UNFCCC appears to be the best tool to promote increased research in the identification and assessment of energy impacts, as well as the development of various instruments and forms of energy more conducive to sustainable development.

But the impacts of energy systems are unfortunately not limited to disturbing climates; they extend to our whole environment. Fossil fuel burning is not the only culprit either. Moreover, some of the other energy forms may well be more damaging in the immediate- and in the long-term. Natural gas is not exempt from environmental impacts. Large hydropower can be extremely destructive for the environment and the social fabric of a country, by displacing people and disturbing whole ecosystems. Radioactive emissions, accidental or routine, and disposal of nuclear wastes remains crucial problems after half a century of expensive research.

3) The specificity of GEO

GEO's role will be to enlarge the scope of observation and the monitoring beyond presently reported impacts. Using the impetus and the tools developed for the UNFCCC, GEO will contribute to a more comprehensive image of the effects of energy systems on sustainable development. GEO's central challenge will be to avoid yielding to the complexity of the subject and to retain a focus on particularly revealing indicators, some of which are obvious, others which remain to be devised.

GEO's is organised around a Steering Group (SG), whose make-up reflects the worldwide scope of its work and the expertise needed to assess the contribution of energy to overall sustainability. The SG includes economists, engineers, geographers, urban planners, all familiar with energy issues, both on the production or the demand side. Moreover, they are all convinced of the importance of acting on energy systems if there is to be a livable world for future generations. Members of the Steering Group are listed below and their curriculum vitae appear at the end of this report.

These members form the GEO Team and are involved in the daily management of the project via e-mail. They provide hands on help and guidance to the GEO coordinator.

They are:

- Dean Anderson, Associate Fellow in the Energy and Environmental Programme of the Royal Institute of International Affairs

- Giap van Dang, Research-Professor,Asian Institute of Technology in Bangkok, for the report on Asia

- Emilio Lèbre La Rovere, Head of the Energy and Environmental Planning Program at the Graduate School of Engineering of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

- Pierre Radanne, Head of the Institut d'évaluation des stratégies sur l'énergie et l'environnement en Europe, INESTENE, Paris

- John Robinson, Director of the Sustainable Development Research Institute of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

- Fulai Sheng, Senior Program Officer, WWF Macroeconomics for Sustainable Development Program Office (MPO), Washington, DC

- Youba Sokona, Energy Programme Coordinator, Environnement et Développement Tiers-Monde ENDA-TM, Dakar

- Andy Stirling, Science and Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex, City of Lewes

- Steve Thorne, an energy efficiency consultant in South Africa (formerly with Capetown University).

The activities of the GEO Team are coordinated by Helene Connor, an energy-environment economist, and one of the initial members of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy created in 1988 to advise the Canadian government on sustainable development.

A brother committee, the Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (STAC) is being set-up to advise the GEO Team on an ad hoc basis. Some specialised NGOs, journals and scientific organisations have already volunteered to contribute to the STAC. It is too early to mention them as no real effort has yet been put into building STAC.

Finally, accurate reporting and monitoring, especially in remote countries, can only be provided by local reporters structured around the GEO Team. These will constitute the geographic nodes. They remain to be organised. This part of the work will require the organisation of meetings in various regions of the world. This will be facilitated by each member of the GEO Team who already belongs to a number of local and world networks.

Thus, for the Rio+ 5 Report, the GEO Team called upon several experts to report on some parts of the world. They are:

- Sujay Basu, Director, School of Energy Studies, Jadavpur University Calcutta, for the report on India

- Samir Allal, Professor at the University of Versailles, for the report on the Middle East

and for the report on Central and Eastern Europe:

- Zbigniew Karaczun, Senior Research Fellow, Warsaw University

- Bernard Laponche, Director, International Consulting on Energy (ICE)

- Garegin Aslanian, Director of the Moscow Energy Club

- Adam Gula, Polish Foundation for Energy Efficiency

One of the priorities of the GEO Team will be to build a sustainable financial base to insure the quality, the reliability, the independence and the continuity of the work. Given the character of the service provided by GEO, it is not realistic to plan operating on a commercial basis. Therefore only a light-base, central structure is envisaged at this point, provided it can be linked to the best reporters in as many countries as possible, and benefit from adequate communications with the rest of the world.

It is this worldwide monitoring, done expertly and independently by members of the civil society that gives GEO its special appeal and its "raison d'être". This unique structure will make GEO the watchdog of clean and lean energy.

| Introduction | Methodology | Conclusion | Documentary sources |


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Horizon Local 1997-98