Was there an Earth Summit?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

This article is part of our special report Plastics and PVC.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) plays an important role in sketching out solutions, but at the moment other lobbyists and the big players in conventional energy have more influence, says Karlheinz Knickel.

Karlheinz Knickel heads the Frankfurt School's UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance.

"Has someone heard something about it? I thought there was supposed to be one. After all it’s 20 years after the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, and the Agenda 21. If there was 20th-anniversary conference, I have heard nothing about it.

Maybe other challenges are more pressing, like the financial collapse of southern Europe. Maybe the larger global problems are just not tangible enough because they can hardly be expressed in monetary terms alone, or they are too far away, geographically or in time – like drought and hunger at the Horn of Africa. It feels like something is going completely wrong and that not one of us is, or more importantly, feels responsible.

There are, however, positive changes happening which show how much it’s possible to achieve. Here are some examples.

Global investment in renewable power and fuels increased 17% to a new record of $257 billion in 2011. Renewable power, excluding large hydro-electric, accounted for 44% of all new generating capacity added worldwide in 2011 (up from 34% in 2010).

Recently, German solar power plants produced a world record 22 gigawatts of electricity. That equals 20 nuclear power stations at full capacity. The 22 gigawatts of solar power fed into the national grid met nearly 50% of the nation's midday electricity needs. Most of that comes from small-scale rooftop installations.

Germany, one of the world's leading industrial nations, is well on its way to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 by 40% from 1990 levels.

Individual households are changing their behaviour. First, cities and districts in Germany are in the process of basing their energy supply solely on renewable energy sources. They are using a broad range of renewables and distributed systems, connected through smart grids and coupled with clever demand management approaches. Wind and biomass are used when the sun is not shining.

Combined heat and power plants and short circuits ensure that fuel efficiency is high. The districts include large companies and cities, and they show that energy systems based 100% on renewables are possible to achieve – alongside corresponding reductions in greenhouse gases, pollution and the establishment of a more reliable and secure supply.

They also show that smart and sustainable systems are affordable. The know-how created and experience gained will meet a rapidly rising worldwide demand. It is now estimated that in Germany alone, approximately 600,000 jobs have been created as a result of the renewables industry. Low cost photo-voltaic module production may be moving to low-wage countries, but new business areas are arising almost continuously.

UNEP plays an important role in sketching out solutions, but at the moment other lobbyists and the big players in conventional energy have more influence.

But is it that important at national and global levels if policymaking lags behind? What seems crucial is that local actors, businesses and initiatives show innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Maybe community and district levels are the more appropriate arena for the transformation required. One thing is certain: community initiatives, businesses and examples that inspire others are needed."

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