Prepare for personal carbon rations, says UN report

One of the UN’s most influential annual reports warns that personal energy rationing in richer countries is a necessary component of any coherent global strategy for sustainable development. American citizens might be capped at less than one sixth of their current carbon consumption by 2050.

The World Economic and Social Survey 2011 accuses governments of developed countries of over-optimistic presentation of their current low carbon strategies. Titled The Great Green Technological Transformation, WESS 2011 calls for “a science-based reality check of energy technology policies,” in relation to the urgent need to restore stability to the planet’s carbon, water, and nitrogen cycles.

The report asserts that tougher measures will be necessary to protect the ecosystem, whilst simultaneously enabling energy usage in developing countries to catch up. It suggests the imposition of a cap on individual energy consumption in developed countries, which would gradually contract to an emissions limit of three tons of carbon dioxide per annum by 2050, compared to the current US average of nineteen tons.

WESS 2011 was released last Tuesday by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, a key UN entity providing support to the General Assembly on development issues. Last week also marked its publication of the annual progress report on the Millennium Development Goals.

The Great Green Technological Transformation forms part of the intensive preparation for next year’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly known as “Rio+20”. The UN is desperate to articulate an updated vision of “sustainable development” to refresh the inspiration of the landmark Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

“The report is required reading as we gear up for Rio+20, which is an opportunity to define pathways to a safer, cleaner and more prosperous world for all,” said Sha Zukang, Under-Secretary-General of DESA and Secretary-General of Rio+20.

This latest contribution from DESA spells out in strong language the most pressing global dilemma of our times. “It is rapidly expanding energy use, mainly driven by fossil fuels, that explains why humanity is on the verge of breaching planetary sustainability boundaries,” it says.

At the same time, the report points to the 2.7 billion people who lack access to basic energy services, relying on traditional pre-industrial fuels. Only 11% of households in rural Africa have electricity. And by 2050, the world’s population will have increased from 7 billion to 9 billion.

“The need for a technological revolution is both a development and existential imperative for civilization,” said Rob Vos, Director of the Development Policy and Analysis Division and lead author of the report. “This is why sustainable development is so important now, because it is not only about making improvements for life today, but also for future generations.”

The report compliments the wide range of global and national policies now in place to stimulate the essential transition to a low carbon economy. But it warns that the aggregate contribution of these initiatives is overwhelmed by the growth in demand for energy, especially from developing countries.

In evidence, the authors point to the sharp rise in greenhouse gases over the last decade, despite the presence of the Kyoto Protocol, a global agreement designed to reduce emissions. They write: “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… technology change has slowed considerably at the level of the global fuel mix since the 1970s.”

WESS 2011 says that governments compound the shortcomings of the low carbon transition by failing to present their national policies in the broader context.

For example, the UK government is admired for imposing one of the world’s toughest regimes for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But the detail of its calculations take no account of imported consumer goods, the emissions effectively being outsourced to the countries of manufacture.

World government projections of prospective renewable energy output are also guilty of disingenuity. Too many estimates are based on the capacity of the technology in isolation from geographical constraints and social attitudes.

“Assumptions in these scenarios are heroic indeed, requiring unprecedented technological progress, international cooperation and transfers,” observes the report. Renewable technologies must contribute 22% of global energy supplies by 2030 in order to meet UN climate change targets.

WESS 2011 therefore concludes that individual consumers will become the last line of defence against what it describes as “a major planetary catastrophe.” Noting that the “500 million richest people, who constitute only 7 per cent of the world population, are responsible for half of all greenhouse emissions,” it proposes that the fairest approach is a cap on personal energy consumption and carbon emissions in developed countries.

The report cites recent research which suggests that, once a basic level of consumption needs are met, the gains in personal happiness and quality of life obtained by escalating wealth are relatively modest.

The human benefit of increasing energy services for the poor is therefore greater than any inconvenience of cutbacks for the rich. The annual carbon emissions in a developing country such as India amount to just over one ton per capita.

The concept of personal carbon emission allowances does not currently feature in formal UN climate change negotiations.


this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News