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July 13, 2011
Urgently Needed: Nothing Short of a Technological Revolution
    by Robert Kropp

A new report by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs warns that steps taken thus far to address climate change and food security are woefully insufficient, and argues that $1.9 trillion per year must be spent to end poverty and avert effects of climate change.

The Worl d Economic and Social Survey 2011 recently published by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA) does not mince words in describing the magnitude of the global challenge now confronting us.

"Humankind must bring about a fundamental technological overhaul of production processes worldwide to end poverty and avert the likely catastrophic impacts of climate change and environmental degradation," the report states. Underscoring the urgency of such an overhaul is the finding of the report that it must be done within the next three to four decades, at a cost of $1.9 trillion per year. The cost of replacing existing fossil fuel and nuclear infrastructures alone is estimated by the report to amount to as much as $20 trillion.

Unfortunately for our prospects, "history and present developments" suggest that the global energy transition that is required "would be virtually impossible." Historically, major energy transitions have taken up to a century to occur; and since 1975, when energy systems stabilized around fossil fuels, "no visible shift in the direction of a new transition towards renewable and cleaner prime energy sources" has occurred.

The report provides recommendations for meeting the challenge of radically transforming energy use. Technological changes to improve energy efficiency must be supported by increased research and deployment; however, in developed countries, improved efficiency must not provide a basis for increased consumption.

Governments in advanced economies in particular must support the development of a broad portfolio of renewable technologies, and allow for experimentation "to ensure that the most efficient technologies are scaled up." Independent technical bodies should oversee the allocation of public funds devoted to the development of renewable technologies.

Noting also that climate change has played a significant role in the five-fold increase in natural disasters since the 1970s, the report states that adaptation through technological innovation will require cooperation at regional and global levels.

The report also addresses food security, which will become an increasingly critical issue as the global food requirements of an expanding population are expected to increase by as much as 100% by 2050. Advances in agriculture increased food production over the past 50 years, but did so at great cost in terms of land degradation and water pollution. While farming techniques that waste less water and use fewer chemicals and pesticides exist already, they need to be rapidly scaled up and made available to producers, especially in developing countries.

In order to meet the requirements to avert disaster on these several fronts, the report recommends a "greening" of multilateral trading rules and international finance. The intellectual property rights currently permitted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) are insufficient for technology transfers to developing countries, the report states.

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Now, nearly a quarter-century later, Rob Vos, lead author of the UN-DESA report, echoed those words, stating, "Sustainable development is so important now, because it is not only about making improvements for life today, but also for future generations."

"Business as usual is not an option," Vos continued. "The need for a technological revolution is both a development and existential imperative for civilization."


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