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UN CALLS FOR A
CLEAN ENERGY FUTURE

Over the next two decades, an estimated $9-15trillion will be invested in new power sector projects. If a majority ofthis investment is directed towards clean energy technologies, the nations of the world will enjoy a global economy that is more secure, more robust,and much cleaner than that of the 20th century.

This is one of the key messages in a new UNEP report, "Natural Selection:Evolving Choices for Renewable Energy Technology and Policy", that is beingreleased just days before scientists meeting in Accra, Ghana, finalize the third and final solutions-oriented volume of the Third Assessment Report ofthe United Nations Inter governmental Panel on Climate Change. The latest IPCCC study is a major assessment of the technology and policy options for reducing greenhouse gas emissions (see www.ipcc.ch).

"Cost-effective policy and technology solutions now exist for cutting greenhouse gas emissions," said Klaus Toepfer, Executive Director of theUnited Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). "We now need the necessary decisions and action from both policy-makers and business leaders. I believethis new UNEP publication on renewable energy technologies and theassociated policy frameworks will make a useful, practical contribution tothe choices available and support our goal of a clean energy future," hesaid.

The demand for energy has increased steadily in recent years, growing onaverage by roughly 2 percent per year in the 1990s. But, says the new UNEPreport, the energy systems developed so far to meet this demand are clearly unsustainable, as they lead directly or indirectly to health damaging levels of air pollution, acidification of ecosystems, land and water contamination,loss of bio-diversity, and global warming.

On the issue of health, the UNEP report says that much of the air pollutionthat kills an estimated 500,000 people each year comes from burning fossilfuels in power stations, industrial furnaces, and motor vehicles. Airpollution also causes an estimated four to five million new cases of chronicbronchitis, as well as millions of cases of other serious illnesses.

In his introduction to the report, Toepfer writes: "The economic burden ofthis pollution is estimated at 0.5 to 2.5 percent of world GNP, some$150-750 billion per year. These facts alone are reason enough to find newsources of energy and change the way it is used. However, the world's increasing appetite for fossil fuels has created an even more compelling reason to accelerate the switch to clean forms of energy, namely globalclimate change."

Fossil fuels (the major cause of greenhouse gas emissions) providethree-quarters of the energy needed to drive a $35 trillion world economy -a situation that is rapidly degrading earth's natural systems.

However, there are solutions. "The destructive link between unsustainable energy use and environmental quality can be broken," says Toepfer."Improvements in technology, and the willingness of governments to experiment with new economic approaches to energy pricing, are fundamentally changing energy markets and presenting new opportunities."

"We also have to make much bigger gains in energy efficiency. We reallys hould be pushing this a lot harder," said Toepfer. "Demand for energy has increased and this should catalyse the drive to greater energy efficiency."

"If the growth in energy demand was cut from, say, 2 to 1.5 per cent through such measures as more fuel efficient power plants, cars and household appliances like washing machines, light bulbs and heating systems, then thiswould add to the overall benefits of utilizing renewable energy".

Renewable energy is abundant, clean, and inexhaustible. It is also the most cost-effective energy source for a variety of applications, meeting between 15 and 20 percent of total world energy demand and 24 percent of the world's total electricity supply. Renewable energy in the form of traditional biomass fuels, such as wood and crop residues, represents about 14 percentof the world's total energy consumption - a larger share than coal.

However, the contribution of newer renewable energy technologies isincreasing rapidly, in spite of new competition from deregulated energymarkets. From a small base in the 1970s, biomass, geothermal, solar,small-scale hydropower, and wind technologies have grown proportionallyfaster than any other electricity supply technology.

The wind energy industry, for example, has grown in just two decades from a producer of small machines to a modern, multi-billion dollar industry supplying bulk, grid-connected power. At the beginning of the 21st century,14,000 megawatts of wind turbines generate clean electricity in more than 30countries. The evolution of the wind energy industry has far exceeded eventhe most optimistic predictions in 1990. Consequently, the cost ofwind-generated electricity has dropped seven-fold, which makes wind power competitive with most fossil fuel technologies.

"It is increasingly true," says Toepfer, "that there are no technical,financial or economic reasons why the nations of the world cannot enjoy the benefits of a high level of energy services and a better environment. It is simply a question of making the right choices," he said.

"Natural Selection: Evolving Choices for Renewable Energy Technology andPolicy" provides an overview of major renewable energy technologies and thepolicy frameworks that will further their development, as well as somescenarios that can lead us to a sustainable energy future.

UNEP is working on a number of initiatives in the sustainable energy area.With the support of the UN Foundation, the African Rural Energy Enterprise Development Initiative (AREED) is engaging the private sector to deliver affordable energy services based on clean and renewable energy technologies in five West and Southern African countries. The Sustainable Energy Advisory Facility (SEAF) is a Danida funded pilot initiative providing information and technical support for sustainable energy activities in selected developing countries, with a focus on policy changes that provide the underlying framework for sustainable energy approaches.

With Global Environment Facility support, UNEP is also running a RenewableEnergy Technology/Energy Efficiency Investment Advisory Facility that helpsfinancial institutions evaluate potential foreign direct investments inrenewable energy or energy efficiency projects in developing countries.

Written by: United Nations Environment Programme Division of Technology Industry, and Economics


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