World According to the Earth Institute

World According to the Earth Institute

Reflections on the ISDRC Conference

Written by Mark Swilling on 2011-06-03 15:10:04

The Earth Institute  at Columbia University, New York, hosted the 17th International Sustainable Development Research Conference , 8-10 May 2011. 

Although this is an annual conference that usually provides a forum for a broad range of perspectives from different parts of the world, the Earth Institute used this opportunity to provide a platform to showcase the research of many of its leading research staff and associates.

Following on from the opening talk by Prof Nina Federoff which was an unapologetic defense of GM science that dismissed the agro-ecological option and food justice perspectives, the speakers that followed the keynote speaker tended to focus on energy and climate change issues with a strong techno-fix bias. These speakers were:
Prof. Peter Schlosser, Associate Director and Director of Research, Earth Institute, Columbia University
Manu Lall, Columbia University
Klaus Lackner, Columbia University
Marc Levy, Earth Institute, Columbia University

For Schlosser all the empirical evidence that is accumulating about climate change not only confirms that the predictions were correct, but in reality climate change impacts are happening sooner and more rapidly than the predictions and models anticipated. His focus was on climate change and the negative effects of CO2.

Lall, Lackner and Levy delivered talks on how they think we should think about alternatives.

Lall’s main objective was to criticize the generally accepted notion (expressed by Schlosser who is his colleague at the Earth Institute) that there are limits to growth. His argument was that this notion stems from the assumption that resources are being depleted and carbon limits breached.
He argued that resources are never depleted; instead, they are transformed from one state into another.  This is achieved by applying the energy desired, primarily from fossil fuels, but there are carbon limits to using the fossil fuel-based energy required by transformation. Here, transformation refers to both the transformation of extracted virgin materials and the re-use of in-use or waste material.
Lall then proceeded to argue that solar energy is, in the final instance, the only truly renewable resource. If it was possible to switch to renewable energy, the resource limits to growth would disappear.  From this perspective, there are no bio-physical limits to growth. The limits are due to a failure to switch to renewable energy technologies.
This perspective has implications for the energy-water-climate change nexus. There is insufficient research on water. However, ultimately water is also an energy problem, for example, desalination is potentially on abundant source of water if powered by the renewable energy required to transform sea water into potable water.
For Lackner, the energy technologies that we depend on are hopelessly inappropriate for a future of nine billion people that is not de-stabilised by climate change. Like Lall he believes that all the other problems (food, resource extraction, etc.) can be resolved if there was a long-term sustainable and affordable energy supply.
Current energy use is 15TW/h pa. This will grow 2-4 times by 2050.
Options to be considered:

  • Hydro: not nearly sufficient potential and not worth considering;
  • Wind: not sufficient potential, but significant environmental impacts;
  • Tidal:  may have a role (2-4 TWH at  most), but not the answer;
  • Geo-thermal: large potential but depends on hydro-fracking that may be environmentally problematic;
  • Solar: Key part of the solution, but still too expensive to go to scale;
  • Nuclear: Can supply on scale, but problems are cost, safety and proliferation(security);
  • Fossil-Fuels: 3000 giga tons still available(400 giga tons used to date), but only viable with carbon capture and storage(ccs) which is 30% more expensive (thus making it similar in price to solar and nuclear)

Solar nuclear and fossil fuels with ccs are all part of the solution. However, technological development in all these fields is still immature. It is not clear at this stage which one will turn out to be most viable and affordable. Technically, the problem can be resolved, but depends on the correct policy decisions.
Marc Levy addressed the question of governance by asking whether our institutions are appropriately configured to make the decisions that need to be made and, therefore, ensure implementation. He started by showing a diagram that depicted the extra-ordinary rise in the numbers of global environmental agreements across all sectors over the past 25 years. This was contracted by their effectiveness: while popular these agreements are ineffective.
He then reviewed two bodies of research for clues: Ostrom’s work on governing the commons, and resilience theory. Both relate to workable solutions at the local scale with doubts about whether these approaches are scaleable to the national and global scale.  The problem, therefore, is we have workable solutions that are not scaleable, and scaleable solutions that are unworkable.
The problem is that as you go to scale the levels of complexity increase. But as the levels of complexity increase the more difficult it becomes to hold together a viable stable coalition of interests to defend a particular position over prolonged periods of time. Unfortunately insufficient attention has been paid by researchers to the institutional configurations and arrangements that are required to adequately respond to the mounting problems we face. This is why it is possible to argue that the scale of problems outstrips our institutional capacity to resolve them, and this gap is widening (Steffer 2010) - problems are getting worse fasterthan solutions getting better.

The fundamentals of an alternative approach would be as follows:

  • A clear vision that acts as a compas to guide action;
  • Restraint - clear thinking about mechanisms and interventions to put a brake on consumption;
  • Science that acts like a gyroscope for informing options and choices.

Compass, brake and gyroscope:

The stabilisation of free trade policy may be a useful success story to emulate when it comes to vision building.
On restraint, very little research exists on institutions for controlling appetites.
Science as gyroscope is very tricky: in the USA science gets drowned out by the over-politicization of issues. Science must retain its independence, and yet be normative and relevant. What is needed is co-evolution of science and policy.
In conclusion, three thoughts from Marc Levy for future action. First, admit normative commitments. Second, we need new research methodologies. Methods should be adapted to fit the problems, not the other way round. Third, Karl Polany talked about The Great Transformation of the 20th - maybe embedding Sustainable Development is the Second Great Transformation.