The outcomes from Rio+20 were disappointing, but there is some light at the end of the tunnel

Today’s guest post is by Christopher Brough who is a regular commenter on this blog.  Chris is currently working as a consultant within the mining industry focusing on optimising metal recoveries and minimising environmental impact. With the challenges of energy transition he is particularly interested in the sustainable provision of the necessary metals for renewable energy sources such as solar cells and wind turbines. He attends Highfields church in Cardiff and loves gardening, English cricket, family time and cycling to work. In the long run he hopes to change perceptions surrounding the mining industry and the value it brings to society. He currently tweets under @mineralogist.

Last week Ban Ki Moon announced one of the initiatives for this year at Rio +20 as sustainable energy for all by 2030 with the aim of ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy within the global energy market (which is estimated within the report at 15%. As can be seen the outcomes of Rio +20 were disappointing with the Eurozone credit crisis overshadowing much of the conference and a lack of political will matched by an abundance of political rhetoric. The problem with the ensuing Rio +20 wish list is that it simultaneously achieves nothing whilst ignoring many of the problems that the vision above will face and that political action could have helped solve.

In terms of the current state of play, 2011 was a turbulent year for global energy, and one with some unhelpful implications for the stated aims of Rio +20. Firstly, world energy consumption last year rose by 2.5%, with total energy consumption set to keep rising at this rate for years ahead with (1) increasing world population, (2) increasing obesity (as more food requires energy intensive agriculture) and (3) improving living standards. Secondly, the current estimate of 15% for the renewable energy share is somewhat generous and only possible if you include nuclear energy as a renewable energy source. Altogether nuclear + hydroelectric + other renewable (wind/solar/biomass…) come to around 13% of the current market share with the last of these making up just 2% of the world energy market. Lastly, coal consumption increased by 5.4%, over double the general increase in energy consumption and you would have to say with fairly obvious consequences for carbon emissions (All Data from BP Statistical Review).

That this is a problem that needs solving is covered in much of the Rio+20 website, as well as elsewhere through the campaigning of Greenpeace, WWF, Oxfam, Christian Aid, Tearfund and many others. A transcript of some of the issues that sustainable development could alleviate are included below notwithstanding the impetus to preserve our climate and the biodiversity of our lands and oceans.

‘Nearly 40% of the world’s population rely on wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste to cook their food breathing in toxic smoke that causes lung disease and kills nearly two million people a year, most of them women and children (800,000).

‘Electricity enables children to study after dark. It enables water to be pumped for crops, and foods and medicines to be refrigerated. Modern fuels for cooking and heating relieve women from the time-consuming drudgery and danger of travelling long distances to gather wood.

‘Increasing the share of energy from renewable sources can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and local pollution; insulate countries from fuel price volatility; and improve those countries’ balance of payments.

‘Improving energy efficiency has the clearest impact on saving money, improving business results, and delivering more services for consumers—better refrigerators that cost the same but use less energy; new vehicle designs that travel further on less fuel; and buildings that require less energy to heat and cool.’

However, within all this was some good news which comes in the general upward trend in renewable energy market share and particularly in the uptake of solar energy which shows initial signs of a rapidly increasing market share. Essentially the trend over the last 20 years is for solar energy to double its market share every two years. Admittedly it has started from a very low base but at this current rate would provide a significant chunk of the world’s energy by the turn of the decade with estimates varying from cautiously optimistic to wildly optimistic.

The tragedy is that these improvements needed some targeted government subsidies to accelerate the process and some political will to add clout. As it is, the change will come slower, though in due course through independent research, development and market forces. Where international governments could have accelerated the alleviation of poverty and improving sustainability they will merely assume some of the credit for the work of private enterprise. Rio +20 has been a wasted opportunity in the backdrop of some encouraging signs. There is light at the end of the tunnel but it could have been so much closer.

Categories: Campaigning, Environment, International politics

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3 replies

  1. “The tragedy is that these improvements needed some targeted government subsidies to accelerate the process and some political will to add clout. As it is, the change will come slower, though in due course through independent research, development and market forces.”

    Indeed. However I feel that it is time for us all to look away from government action regarding environmental and social issues. Most leaders are either ignorant, obtuse, or indifferent to these issues. Market forces, which of course involves ordinary people more than political action and subsidies (corruption comes from these), will be the only way that real changes will come about.

    • I have serious doubts that major governmental international conferences are going to achieve major steps forward unless there is a real and immediate crisis. Judging by the way many countries wanted changes to suit their interests at Rio its amazing there was any consensus. That doesn’t mean governments shouldn’t be lobbied, but if we wait for them to act we’ll be waiting a long time. Change is going to be more rapid due to the market and economics and communities acting at a local level.

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