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July 05, 2002
Rio + 10 Series: Progress and Regress--Energy Sectors Report on Their Efforts Toward Sustainability
    by William Baue

Three industry sectors that supply energy--oil and gas, coal, and electricity--reported on their improvements and shortcomings in sustainable development since the Rio Summit.

The United Nations Environment Programme Division of Technology, Industry, and Economics (UNEP DTIE) plays an integral role in coordinating the contributions the private sector makes to the World Summit on Sustainable Development. In September 2000, UNEP DTIE invited industry organizations representing 22 different sectors to prepare sustainability reports for presentation at the Johannesburg Summit, also known as Rio + 10. In mid-May of this year, UNEP DTIE released the 22 reports as part of the Industry as a Partner for Sustainable Development series.

Reports from three sectors--oil and gas, coal, and electricity--fall under the category of energy, the second of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan's five focal areas for Rio + 10. Each of these reports deftly employs the language of sustainability and indicates the intention to integrate social and environmental factors into business decisions. The reports also honestly admit the sectors' limitations and shortcomings in implementing sustainability initiatives. Unfortunately, the reports fall short on specific suggestions for addressing sustainability issues.

"Significant efforts have been made by participating industries in reducing their ecological footprint," said Jacqueline Aloisi de Larderel, UNEP's assistant executive director and director of the team that helped produced the reports. "But, it is in industry's own self-interest to do more to spread best practice and raise the performance levels of all its members everywhere."

The three energy sector reports identify environmental and social improvements made since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or the Rio Summit, convened a decade ago. For example, the oil and gas report cites that in "upstream operations" (extraction and production) both the number of major offshore petroleum spills and the frequency rate of injuries that result in employees losing work time have halved since the Rio Summit. However, the rate of fatalities has not similarly declined, according to the report. The oil and gas report was authored by the International Petroleum Industry Environmental Conservation Association (IPIECA) and the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers.

The coal report and the electricity report similarly document both improvements and failure to solve certain sustainability problems. The reports were prepared by the World Coal Institute and the E7 consortium of nine leading electricity companies from around the world, respectively. The coal report notes the industry has developed and deployed higher combustion-efficiency technologies that reduce emissions. However, the industry has yet to solve its major challenges, namely its contributions to climate change and acid rain.

The electricity report states that the industry has managed to meet increasing demand while reducing emissions per kilowatt-hour through combustion control technologies and increased efficiency. However, the report concedes perhaps the greatest remaining challenge: the provision of affordable, clean electricity to the two billion people worldwide who currently lack access to such energy.

The UNEP applauds the sectors for their achievements and for their efforts in compiling the reports. The UNEP also recognizes that industry improvements since the Rio Summit have not kept pace with negative trends, a phenomenon known as the "rebound effect."

"Today, we are still confronted with worsening global trends related to environmental problems like global warming, loss of biodiversity, land degradation, air and water pollution," said Klaus Toepfer, UNEP's executive director. "Some companies have risen to the challenge. Such efforts need to be acknowledged and applauded. However, the new reports clearly show that progress since Rio has been uneven within and amongst industry sectors and countries."

The sector reports would inspire greater confidence if they offered more concrete actions to address environmental and social dilemmas. The proposal sections of the three reports abound in optimistic language, but they present a dearth of quantifiable acts. An example from the oil and gas report encapsulates this deficiency: the sector's Joint Corporate Reporting Compendium Project will result in an "evergreen" web-based compendium of Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) reports. The lack of any legal or regulatory bite calls into question the ultimate efficacy of the initiative.


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