by Stephen Johnson
The era of cheap energy is coming to an end and societies will need
to reshape energy consumption and infrastructure or face
consequences, warns a new scientific background paper issued to
the United Nations.
The paper (Global
Sustainable Development Report 2019 by Group of
Independent Scientists - Transforming the Economy) was written by biophysicists with
the BIOS Research Unit in Finland who were asked by the U.N.
to contribute research for the U.N. Global Sustainable
Development Report (GSDR),
which will be released in 2019.
It contains some sobering predictions.
The team argues that
today's "dominant economic theories" and conceptions of modern
capitalism are inadequate because they falsely assume societies will
have continued access to cheap energy, like fossil fuels.
Also, these theories
generally don't factor in sink costs - meaning costs that can't be
recovered - like
climate change, and they fail to
account for the potential sociopolitical consequences that could
result from continued unchecked consumption and growth.
are for the first time in human history shifting to energy
sources that are less energy efficient, production of usable
energy (exergy) will require more, not less, effort on the part
of societies to power both basic and non-basic human
activities," the scientists wrote.
The team called for
societies to start thinking about new models of governance
"It can be safely
said that no widely applicable economic models have been
developed specifically for the upcoming era," they wrote,
suggesting that the global economy is approaching a new era.
"Our focus is on the
transition period, the next few decades."
What needs to be done?
highlighted a few key issues:
less energy and transform energy infrastructure.
Renewables might help alleviate the effects of climate change,
but they currently have a low
EROI (energy return on
investment), meaning it costs more to implement renewables than
it does to use fossil fuels.
The team predicted it
will be "extremely difficult, if not impossible" to meet
current or growing levels of energy need in the next few decades
with renewables or other low-carbon solutions.
Because of this stark
considerable pressure to lower total energy use."
and more efficiently
Walking, biking and electrified public transportation should all
be emphasized in the world's cities, the scientists wrote.
This will require,
"changes in city
planning" and "in vehicle production, in transport
infrastructure such as railways, roads and charging
stations, and in energy production and storage,"
...in addition to
reductions in international freight transport and aviation.
should produce more of their own food
Both affluent and developing countries should become more
self-sufficient in food production because it will
"too risky to
rely on the functioning of only a few main food production
areas in the future," the team wrote, also suggesting that
"dairy and meat should make way for largely plant-based
industry is currently dominated by concrete and steel, whose
manufacturing and other life-cycle processes are very
energy-intensive and cause significant climate emissions and
other types of waste," the team wrote.
long-lasting wood buildings can provide better carbon storage.
World Scientists' Warning to Humanity: A
Achieving these changes will require unprecedented action, the
will not suffice - even with a high carbon price. There must be
a comprehensive vision and closely coordinated plans.
Otherwise, a rapid
system-level transformation toward global sustainability goals
The team wrote that each
society would have to develop its own solution for navigating the
transition into a sustainable economy.
However, those changes
will probably require government intervention in every case.
"The most likely
option for initiating transitions to sustainability
would be for a group of progressive states to take the lead.
This would require
economic thinking that enables large public investment programs
on the one hand and strong regulation and environmental caps on
In the modern global
economy, states are the only actors that have the legitimacy and
capacity to fund and organize large-scale transitions."
The Finland team's paper
comes less than a year after some 15,000 scientists with the
Alliance of World Scientists published a 'Warning
to Humanity' that described various ways in which human
activity is eroding the biosphere.
The scientists offered five broad solutions at the time:
We must bring
environmentally damaging activities under control to restore
and protect the integrity of the earth's systems we depend
We must, for
example, move away from fossil fuels to more benign,
energy sources to cut
greenhouse gas emissions and the pollution of our air and
Priority must be
given to the development of energy sources matched to
third-world needs - small scale and relatively
easy to implement.
We must halt
deforestation, injury to and loss of agricultural land, and
the loss of terrestrial and marine plant and animal species.
We must manage
resources crucial to human welfare more effectively.
We must give high
priority to efficient use of energy, water, and other
materials, including expansion of conservation and
We must stabilize
This will be
possible only if all nations recognize that it requires
improved social and economic conditions, and the adoption of
effective, voluntary family planning.
We must reduce
and eventually eliminate poverty.
"I believe we
absolutely should have such bold goals for our country,"
says the director of The Earth Institute Jeffrey Sachs.
cut the poverty at
least by half."
We must ensure
sexual equality, and guarantee women control over their own
"As women and
girls get better educated, they have fewer kids, and the
kids they do have more resources so they're better taken
care of and they are more successful,"
says Bill Nye.
"So what we
want to do, in my world over here in science education,
is get women and girls around the world as educated as
best we can as fast as we can so that there will be more
resources per person in the coming years."