Day 9 – Paradigms of Sustainability

Written by Carina Vogelsberger

As we are approaching the end of this year’s summer school, day 9 encouraged us to reflect upon the challenges and opportunities that we have been discussing from a broader perspective.

Having started the day with a lecture at the university, Martin first wanted to catch up on two points we had to leave out the days before: the production of biofuels and Geneva’s Tosa-bus – an electric driven public bus, charged through induction at every bus stop it passes. Both are examples of innovative ways to overcome our dependency on fossil fuels, but nevertheless, do not come without any environmental impact either. Offering a good transition to Martin’s initial lecture, we were confronted with the question of whether it will be enough to make energy more sustainable. Or does avoiding the intensification of climate change and its destructive effects also require the reduction of our general energy consumption?

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As today’s session has shown, even among scientists there is no real agreement in that regard: We compared three different perspectives, two offering a technology optimist view, while the other represents a technology pessimist thinking. The first is discussed through an article by Indur M. Goklany, former representative of the United States at the IPCC. Opposed to any form of public regulation that may limit economic growth, he argues that economic development and increasing wealth will ultimately set free the necessary capital to address the environmental challenges countries are facing.

As representative of the second tradition, Michael E. Porter, Professor at Harvard Business School, shares Goklany’s believe in technological innovation. However, he admits some shortcomings within the economic system and the way it deals with environmental issues. Therefore, Porter regards environmental regulations not so much as a barrier to economic growth, but even as a chance for private businesses: While, nationally, they might level the playing-field, on the international scale, they could even bring a competitive advantage to companies that are not publicly supported in developing more sustainable, technological solutions.

Contrary to the first two positions, Jørgen S. Nørgård from the Technological University of Denmark argues that ‘cleaner’ energy alone will not be enough to prevent severe consequences of environmental change. Hence, we should acknowledge that economic growth cannot be endless, but that only limiting global production will really lead us to a more sustainable future. Despite being probably the least known among the three researchers, Nørgård illustrates that, in the past, similar arguments have been taken forward by leading economists such as John Maynard Keynes or John Stuart Mill. While he acknowledges that a reduction of general consumption will thereby be inevitable, this must not be true for people’s material standard of living. Limits to growth would not be imposed on the public, but evolve in a democratic society, supporting the strive for greater equality. Ideally, this comes about when addressing the central element of today’s overproduction: the input of labour. Nørgård divides it into five factors – population, labour force fraction, average working time, employment rate and labour productivity – and elaborates under which circumstances people themselves would have an interest in limiting or rethinking the same.

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Considering our lectures and discussions within these two weeks, I am strongly sympathising with Nørgård and his argumentation. Despite the ambitious projects we got to know this week, we have seen that even sustainable energy comes at a price. And also some of the experts we heard in the first week, such as David Carlson from the WMO or Arthur Lyon Dahl from the UNDP, were critical about continuously increasing the global energy demand.  However, when looking at current tendencies, within the energy sector but also in terms of public regulations, identifying a dominant paradigm becomes much more difficult. At least within Europe, the general trend seems to be closest to Porter’s proposals – depending on the situation, either combined with elements of Goklany’s or Nørgard’s theory.

Hearing from the work of practitioners in the field again, our afternoon visit to the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) seemed to confirm this assessment. Indeed, Oleg Dzioubinski, Head of UNECE’s Sustainable Energy Division, argues that industries and investors are often reluctant to support projects related to energy efficiency, as they do not see the immediate benefits for their businesses. Hence, it would be the responsibility of governments to give incentives for the needed actions – an effort that often falls short, according to Dzioubinski.

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Parts of the talk given by David Elzinga, Economic Affairs Officer at UNECE, seemed to be closer to the two other paradigms we were discussing. Somehow close to the argumentation by Goklany, Elzinga noted that ‘less developed countries’ first need to put a stronger emphasis on economic development, before being able to focus on sustainability. Nevertheless, as he continues by elaborating on current statistics to the energy sector’s carbon emissions, he concedes that significant changes will be needed in order to reach the energy emission goals set for 2050 – requiring not only a reduction of emissions, but energy use in general. However, Elzinga is sceptical of whether market regulations could be an efficient tool in that regard. In order to make investments in sustainable energy more attractive, those would need to be global and set for a certain (longer) period of time. Otherwise, they might only serve as an additional insecurity factor for private businesses.

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Offering also a personal assessment of which direction we will and can go in the future, Elzinga further criticises the tendency within the renewable energy sector to downgrade the fossil fuel industry. Considering their powerful position, and hence capacity for leading change, it would be “much healthier to engage with the fossil fuel industry than going against them”. When talking about sustainability, we must not only think of its environmental, but also social and economic aspects. Thus, simply shutting down coal mines cannot be a solution, considering the jobs and livelihoods they secure and the capital that lies within this market. Therefore, according to my understanding, Elzinga’s core message is that major changes in the generation and consumption of energy will be needed, but that those require a smooth transition. For that, it is necessary to get all stakeholders “in the boat”, instead of demonising major actors. Overall, the goal should not bet to advocate for more renewables, but to lower global emissions.

To conclude, it seems that we need to think outside the boxes of rigid theoretical models in order to grant a global, equal and sustainable energy supply in the future. Instead of shifting the blame (and responsibility) from one actor to another, collaborations between the public sector and industries need to be fostered. Furthermore, as long as global regulatory mechanisms are largely absent, the engagement of civil society, local and regional governments might be crucial: Public advocacy and giving incentives for private businesses to invest in sustainable and more energy efficient solutions can be a first step towards a general reduction of global energy demand. In facilitating collaborations among the different stakeholders and providing technical support, UNECE and the UN in general could play a significant role in this transition. Acknowledging the need for cooperation and engaging the private sector in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is hopefully only the first step in that direction.

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