The Great Green Technological Revolution Within Reach?

The global community is confronted with the problem that achieving the agreed goal of eradicating poverty will require much more economic progress.  But the economic progress of the past is the cause for most of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions responsible for climate change.  To conquer poverty without endangering the planet will require the adoption of radically different technologies for the global economy.

At present, about 2.7 billion people (about 40 per cent of humanity) do not have access to modern energy. Without it, they have little chance of achieving a decent living standard. Without a major shift to clean energy and greater energy efficiency in the conveniences of modern life, satisfying the additional energy demand will push climate change to catastrophically dangerous levels.

Agriculture, which is the source of livelihoods of most of the world’s poor, is the cause of 14 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions.  However, it will be necessary to increase food production by between 70 and 100 per cent by mid-century to feed a forecasted future population of 9 billion people and avoid chronic food insecurity. So, similarly, nothing short of a technological revolution in agriculture will permit an increase in food production without further harming the natural environment and endangering livelihoods in the rural areas.

The incidence of natural disasters has increased fivefold since the 1970s, mostly due to weather changes.  The human impact of extreme natural events is most felt by the world’s poor who tend to live and work in less protected areas.  Improving infrastructure and buildings will reduce the vulnerability of the poor to extreme events.  In the long-run, reducing the frequency of extreme events will require rapid technological transition in agriculture, manufacturing and energy.

The 2011 issue of the United Nations’ World Economic and Social Survey (WESS), entitled the Great Green Technological Transformation, calls for a technological revolution in the order of the first industrial revolution as an indispensable element in achieving the twin goals of ensuring that poor countries continue to have a path to development while protecting the livability of Earth.

In order not to breach the emission limits indicated by climate change, this technological transformation will have to be by and large completed by 2050. This will be an enormous challenge. Previous fundamental transformations of energy systems, such as that to the present fossil-fuel based one, took about 70 years to complete. So, is it at all feasible to have a green technological revolution in four decades or so?

In agriculture, the bigger challenge is perhaps not so much technological innovation per se, but rather to provide small farmholders in developing countries, in particular, with greater access to land, infrastructure, credits, and knowledge of sustainable farming techniques. Those will be conditioning factors for the transformation away from the technologies of the not-so-green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s which induced excessive and inappropriate use of fertilizers, pollution of waterways due to greater siltation and the intensive use of chemicals, and biodiversity loss. The new technologies that will need to be adopted will involve traditional knowledge and farming practices such as low-tillage farming, crop rotation and inter-planting, green manure utilization, water harvesting and water-efficient cropping.  New and more sustainable varieties of high-yielding and pest and disease resistant food crops exist but have to be developed further.

The challenge of inducing sufficient technological innovation for the green energy transformation is much bigger. Clean, renewable sources of energy exist but are expensive. They will need to be scaled up massively, but the technological feasibility of doing so sufficiently to meet future energy demand is uncertain. In the WESS we stress that current efforts in developing these new technologies are far from sufficient. At the same time, however, we say that, unlike is the case now, even greater priority should be given to incentives and investments that will greatly improve energy efficiency. More than half of the gains are to be achieved there. So policy makers should not only push to move away from non-renewable energy sources, but should push even harder to make “end-use technologies” more energy efficient. Enormous energy savings are possible by improving electric heaters, diesel engines, electric motors, biomass burners, gas burners and engines used in manufacturing plants in appliances, heaters, factory equipment.  This kind of technological shift must be undertaken by developing countries also if they are to maintain the international competitiveness of their products.

At the international level, this would require deploying a broader range of intellectual property policies – beyond current policies which award monopoly-of-use rights to owners – to facilitate both innovation and diffusion of new technologies at the speed required, including patent pooling and the use of compulsory licensing.

Is all of this affordable? We estimate that the global community must invest about 3 per cent of GDP from now until 2050 in order to undertake the green technological transformation. Over time, the cost may be less, as green investments –as far as we know now- tend to create more jobs than brown investments and will stimulate growth. Wishful thinking?  It can’t be, because not doing so is unaffordable as it comes with the penalty of surpassing the natural boundaries of our planet.