At UN debate, experts weigh clean energy, water strategies to halt ‘runaway’ climate change

Sustainable water management brings economic, social and environmental benefits, say countries. Photo: UNEP

16 May 2013 – With dire warnings likely to match or exceed the worst fears about the effects of global warming, environment and development experts gathered today at United Nations Headquarters to debate the twin challenge of curbing climate change while sustaining economic growth.

“The fundamental challenge of our time is to end extreme poverty in this generation and significantly narrow the global gap between rich and poor without ruing the environmental basis for our survival,” General Assembly President Vuk Jeremic said as he opened the Thematic Debate Sustainable Development and Climate Change: Practical Solutions in the Energy-Water Nexus.

“We need to embrace the path to sustainability, crafting a new global partnership in which no nation is left behind, and no country opts out,” he told the gathering which featured UN officials, a host of environment and energy Ministers, as well as a diverse mix of experts that included Jeffrey Sachs, Director of Colombia University’s Earth Institute, and Rajendra Kumar Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Mr. Jeremic set the tone for the day-long discussion by telling the participants that scientists have confirmed some of the worst fears with the recent determination that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen above 400 parts per million for the first time in more than three million years. “The evidence is overwhelming: global temperatures are rising and extreme weather events are becoming commonplace,” he said.

“We cannot afford business as usual – for growth along the current path will lead us to catastrophe, not riches,” he said.

To safeguard the world from runaway climate change, he said the international community will need to “de-couple economic growth from our dependence on carbon-based energy systems, which currently provide 80 percent of our primary power needs”. Yet, as the concentration of C02 increases, the Earth’s ecosystems will change with “perilous rapidity.” Freshwater sources will decrease as rivers and aquifers dried up.

Highlighting the link between water and energy, he stressed the need to invest in innovative technologies and strategies to ensure countries can continue growing economically without harming the environment.

“Our water problems are closely linked to our energy problems. Water supply requires large amounts of power, whether for pumping, treatment, or desalination. Similarly, energy supplies often critically depend on water – for hydroelectricity, cooling, or irrigation for biomass,” he said.

“We need more energy, not less, to end poverty and raise global living standards. But that power must be low carbon, if we are to remain within planetary boundaries. New technologies are required in order to remake the energy delivery systems so that by mid-century, they produce perhaps three times today’s output, but with less than half of the emissions.”

In addition to new technologies, Mr. Jeremic said there are also organizational and economic challenges, as Governments must give the right incentives to the private sector to rationalize water use and switch to low-carbon energy systems.

“This calls for a new direction and new strategies. I believe this debate can be an important step in moving us closer to the post-2015 starting line, by directing our attention to the innovative science, cutting-edge technologies, and new business models related to the energy-water nexus.”

The debate is part of the commitments made by countries last year at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), in which countries pledged to implement measures to integrate the three dimensions of sustainable development—namely economic, social, and environmental.

“We have the tools to save the planet from human-induced environmental devastation. What we lack, however, is a fundamental commitment to use them in coherent ways, as well as a full appreciation of how little time we have left before it gets too late,” Mr. Jeremic added.


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