SURVEYOR'S NOTEBOOK

Hey UN! Here is your Golden Opportunity for Global Relevance

By Rik van Hemmen

 

 

Earlier this week the United Nations issued the “2020 World Economic Situations and Prospects report,” a high-level annual report. It is chock full of economic information collected by just about every United Nations Economic analysis body.

The report has a foreword by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.  In it, he stresses the importance of Sustainable Development, recently emphasized during the SDG Summit in September by the launch of the Decade of Action to deliver the Sustainable Development Goals, the SDGs, by 2030.

The executive summary goes into further detail, but ends with sidestepping the Sustainable Development Goals and focusing on equally and fairly shared sustainable energy as the lead issue in the world today.

While the World Economic Situations and Prospects report is filled with supporting data, the executive summary recommendation to focus on fairly shared sustainable energy does not require over 200 pages of supporting data. It is inherently a self-evident conclusion if one wants to achieve the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals that range far and wide from clean water and sanitation for all, to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies, to supporting excellent education for all.

 

If it is not immediately clear that sustainable energy is the core driver of all sustainable development goals, it should become clear if one realizes that money is a proxy for excess energy. Only when a community has excess energy (initially food, but later food for animals and still later fuel for cars and factories) can it engage in trade. And money is nothing but a bunch of trade certificates. It is not money that leads the charge in development; it is always energy first. Therefore, taxation is not a mechanism for redistributing money; it is actually a mechanism for redistributing energy. With sufficient fairly distributed energy, it becomes relatively easy to achieve all the UN sustainable development goals. Unfairly distributed or limited energy leads to strife and inequality. Sufficient fairly distributed energy leads to fair development and greater equality.

However, in the last few centuries, we have driven ourselves into a human development dead end. We have used globally destructive fossil fuels to rob from environmental security, to pay for development that has flowed to those who happen to have access to plenty of fossil fuel energy. We now know that we can produce sustainable energy that can beat the cost of fossil fuel energy. Maybe not everywhere today, but certainly in many places where there is sun, wind, waves, sea and low-value land. Weirdly, sun, wind, waves, sea and low-value land tend to exist in underdeveloped countries and, most often, fossil fuel costs are high in those countries.

So, here is the rub; why, for goodness sake, does the UN continue to engage economists to issue annual reports and come to conclusions that are obvious and do not change no matter how many annual graphs are produced? Instead, the UN should focus on one task and one task alone: Smooth the road for fairly distributed sustainable energy with all the resources it can bring to bear.

This means that the United Nations, by all means possible, should connect the pieces that are needed to get sustainable zero emission energy in place as quickly as possible. This is a complex issue that should not be led by economists. It should be led by all the world’s nations (hence the United Nations) and focus on getting sustainable energy infrastructure in places where it is cheap to build. And that is in underdeveloped countries. This should occur by the creation of a large tent high-speed sustainable energy task force consisting of richer countries, poorer countries, states, provinces, counties, cities and towns, government agencies, charitable foundations, sustainable technology companies, energy and utility providers, banks, private investors, small sustainable energy start-ups and research institutes all served by rigorous technical and financial review while functioning as an open marketplace. And this tent would have space for all stakeholders (and who is not anyway?), even if you are a small player, just join and get involved, the large players that wait the longest to get involved will lose the most.

Within the UN organizational structure, this would be a tightly focused sustainable development multi-stakeholder partnership as already enshrined in SDG 17 – “Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the global partnership for sustainable development”.

In other words: UN, focus, and just do what you said you would do.

The advantages of such an approach are manifold for all.

For example:

1.   Richer country investment in less developed countries immediately accelerates all SDG’s (pick any SDG and it will become evident that this approach will lift any specific goal for the countries that receive and participate in sustainable energy investment).

2.  In complex engineering problems, there is only one path to success: “Build a little, Test a little, Learn a lot.” Just talking or writing reports has never solved a complex engineering problem. Today we know sustainable energy is a complex problem, but there is sufficient engineering evidence that it is fully solvable, we just need to stop talking and start doing. Engaging smaller economic communities first will result in the experience that allows full sustainable energy adoption in larger more unwieldy economies. And the beautiful world we all share is filled with excellent test beds ranging from poor desert countries ready to take advantage of, and export, solar electricity, to small island states needing only a single technology to solve its many problems, to larger island nations requiring a triad of sun, wind, and waves integrated with novel more efficient homes, factories and transportation systems.

3.  By doing this, richer countries actually win twice. First: The more efficient investment in sustainable technologies in the “Build a little, Test a little, Learn a lot” approach results in better returns on innovation investment. Second: The richer countries get to keep their fingers on the pulse in identifying the optimal points in time, policies, incentives, and technologies that will enable their own massive transition to sustainable energy as cost-effectively as possible, while still participating in the technology ownership that will enable the transition.

Once this tent is built, there will be many novel approaches that can be rapidly engaged and tested. Some will involve many countries, while some may just involve one investing country and one country receiving the investment in a novel sustainable energy venture. But as long as the UN and its member countries create and maintain the tent, the UN can refocus its “World Economic Situation and Prospects” analysis effort, and report on progress rather than stagnation.