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The world’s attempts to achieve sustainable development – tackling poverty and simultaneously curbing greenhouse gases – seem condemned to widespread failure unless politicians change course, a study claims.
LONDON, 21 January – World leaders have so far failed to raise people out of poverty by economic development while at the same time avoiding the worst effects of climate change, Swedish researchers say.
A study of 134 countries published by TCO, a confederation of 15 Swedish trade unions (based on data from the TCO RioRank database), shows that sustainable development is not yet close to being achieved, despite it being the stated aim of many politicians.
Yet it remains the official policy of the United Nations, the aim of climate negotiations, Earth summits and many international economic forums.
The theory is that countries can develop and at the same time reduce carbon dioxide emissions by combining energy efficiency and the greater use of renewable sources of power.
About 40 countries have managed to do this, but the vast majority have not – and among those that have failed, the study says, are the fastest-growing economies and the most polluting: China, the US and India.
The starkest example is China, whose development has been monitored since the first Earth Summit in 1972 in Stockholm. There the economy and the environment were for the first time discussed together in a United Nations setting, giving rise to the idea of sustainable development.
In an extraordinary period of growth, in which it has lifted many millions out of poverty, China has also topped the league in energy efficiency measures. It became 77% more fuel-efficient per unit of GDP between 1972 and 2007, saving billions of tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere.
At the same time the country’s economy has grown so dramatically, more than 10 times, that it has wiped out all these gains. That means that despite these efficiencies China also leads the world as the country that has increased CO2 emissions by the largest amount, to six times more than in 1972.
The world’s other large polluter, the US, has done the same. It has become more efficient, producing 27% more with the same amount of energy. But because the economy has grown, although much more slowly than in China, pollution levels have continued to rise – only 22% since 1972, but still adding to the overall atmospheric CO2 load.
One important point in the report, by the Swedish Confederation of Professional Employees, is that energy efficiency makes countries and companies more competitive. The report says it is very bad news for countries engaged in world trade if they are less energy-efficient than their competitors while the price of energy continues to rise.
This is especially bad news for India. Unlike China, with its 77% increase in energy efficiency, India has managed only 3%, while using 500% more energy. This makes it a major polluter saddled with inefficient industries that will not be able to compete in world markets.
Across the world it is the European Union countries that do best overall, although for different reasons. The eastern European countries now in the EU, formerly part of the Soviet bloc, suffered economic collapse after 1991 and as a result emissions went down hugely.
They are now rising again as economies grow, but these countries have new fuel-efficient industries so emissions overall are still well below 1991 levels.
Of the larger economies Germany, the United Kingdom and France have all managed to reduce their emissions over a 40-year period while their economies have continued to grow, albeit well below the pace of the tiger economies of Asia. Germany has reduced total emissions by 22%, France by 20% and the UK 18%.
One point the report underlines is that all 134 countries studied have different resources and politicians prone to making different decisions. Some produce most of their energy from renewable sources, like Iceland and Zambia.
China’s example is especially instructive. Thirty years ago it produced 40% of its electrical power from renewables: since then, to keep pace with development, it has invested heavily in fossil fuels. China’s renewable industry has grown dramatically, but it now accounts for only 14% of overall electricity supply.
The report shows how difficult sustainable development is to achieve, as governments are pulled in opposite directions, and also how agreement on a fair way to cut emissions becomes almost impossible. Because resources, growth rates and stages of development differ, so do priorities and policies.
And because politicians have already made strategic decisions on building power plants, it is very difficult to see how they can settle on another agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol that will involve the entire world and seem fair to everyone. – Climate News Network