IEF Statements for CSD 14 (2006)


for the 14th session of the
(New York, 1-12 May 2006)



Statement prepared for the 14th session of the
Commission on Sustainable Development
by the International Environment Forum
(New York, 1-12 May 2006)

Energy is essential for life, for the functioning of the biosphere, and for human civilization. With anything so fundamental as energy, there are inevitably moral and ethical issues surrounding its distribution and use.

There are four main sources of energy on this planet: solar energy radiated to us from the sun; the energy of radioactive decay, including all the heat escaping from the earth's interior; tidal energy from the gravitational interaction of the earth and the moon; and the solar energy captured by life in the past and stored as fossil fuels.

Our present material, industrial and technological civilization discovered, exploited and is driven by the energy from fossil fuels, a limited capital stock inherited from the past. This short-term source of cheap and concentrated energy has distorted the material development of our economy, agriculture, technologies, trade, habitat and consumer lifestyle, creating a dependence on high energy consumption that cannot be maintained with long-term sustainable alternatives. The human population itself has been able to undergo a remarkable expansion because historically cheap energy allowed us to overcome many of the barriers to planetary carrying capacity in the short term.

Today, while energy consumption is still accelerating, we are approaching the limits of exploitable fossil fuels, producing an inevitable rise in the costs of extraction. At the same time, the release of greenhouse gases linked to fossil fuel use is triggering climate change, imposing massive costs on the economy and putting millions of vulnerable people at risk. We are addicted to cheap energy, but the end of cheap fossil based energy is in sight. Like the thoughtless heir to a fortune, we are spending recklessly until there will be nothing left.

The ethical dimensions of this dilemma are frightening. The wealthy fraction of the world's population has been and is benefiting most from access to this cheap energy source, while the poor are most vulnerable to the consequences of both climate change and the growing instabilities of an economy and society under stress. As we reach both planetary and energy limits, the risks of major disruptions to societies are increasing .

It is urgent to begin phasing out the use of fossil fuels and to moderate our dependence on energy by becoming more efficient in its use. There are many potential technologies and alternative systems that can tap into the flows of renewable energy, which alone can assure long-term sustainability. Future civilization will need to develop all the available sources of energy on the surface of the planet, but these diffuse sources will support very different technologies and lifestyles from those encouraged by the concentrated energy supplies of today.

The transition will be difficult and challenging. It threatens fundamental national interests, political and economic structures, agricultural and industrial systems, and the infrastructure reflected in our present use of space and resources. More fundamentally, it removes our ability to use cheap energy to compensate for our excessive use of other resources like water and soil fertility, and to redistribute goods and services around the planet. With so many powerful and vested interests involved, the potential for conflict is considerable.

The only solution is to unite in the search for just and equitable solutions to the energy challenge, ensuring that the costs and benefits are fairly distributed at the planetary level and across all segments of the world population, with special attention to the most vulnerable. New global institutions and systems of governance will be necessary to prevent conflict in the sharing of increasingly scarce energy resources. New technologies, transport systems and patterns of human settlements will be required to adapt to alternative sustainable sources of energy.

More generally, sustainability requires that we redefine the goals of development away from an excessive energy-subsidized material civilization towards a more knowledge-based social, cultural, scientific and spiritual civilization where the energy that counts the most is that of human creativity, exchange and innovation. The challenges of such a rapid and fundamental transformation of our society can only be met with unity of thought and action.



Statement prepared for the 14th session of the
Commission on Sustainable Development
by the International Environment Forum
(New York, 1-12 May 2006)


We cannot live more than a few minutes without air. We must breathe whatever air is available around us, regardless of its quality. The fragile inner surface of the lungs where oxygen passes into the bloodstream and carbon dioxide is given off is particularly sensitive to toxins and irritants. Air pollution is thus of immediate concern to every human being.

Apart from those who voluntarily pollute their own air through smoking, most air pollution is inflicted by others, usually without recourse or compensation. It therefore goes against such universal moral precepts as the golden rule to do unto others as you would have others do unto you, and in theory should be punishable by law in most states if the guilty source could be identified. However since air quality usually reflects the sum of many diffuse sources, identifying the responsible party is difficult, and since almost everyone undertakes activities that release pollutants, we are all collectively responsible as well.

Different types of air pollutants reflect distinct ethical challenges. Air pollution from industrial sources is a significant problem in most countries. Since these are usually identifiable point sources, they are relatively easy to regulate. Several approaches are available to industry: pollution prevention through changes in operating practices, improved and preventive maintenance, or changes in raw materials; building good air pollution control systems into new or modified production processes; improving or replacing air pollution control systems in existing facilities; and reducing air pollution and improving energy efficiency through process change. The industry must weigh the cost of these measures, reflected directly in its balance sheet, against the benefits to the public for which it receives no return apart from the temporary good will that comes when a nuisance has been abated. While a responsible business will implement all reasonable measures to avoid harm to others, unscrupulous operators will simply hope that their emissions are unnoticed or untraceable.

Government experience in the development and implementation of air pollution prevention or reduction suggests that the multi-stakeholder cooperative approach has long range benefits, with government, industry, and NGOs agreeing on requirements with support and advice from technical and health experts, adopting an implementation time line, and undertaking periodic reviews and assessments of implementation progress. Where the government is honest and efficient, the businesses trustworthy, and the NGOs altruistic in their representation of the public interest, this works well.

The air pollution created by multiple small sources, whether motor vehicle exhausts, home and building heating systems, or agricultural wastes, can only be controlled by changes in consumer behaviour and in product technologies. There is often a circular debate whether consumer demand should lead to new products, or whether business should develop less polluting products and educate the consumers in their desirability. This usually reflects the morally questionable desire to pass the responsibility for change off to someone else while profiting from the status quo. Reinforcing ethical behaviour and strengthening corporate responsibility can thus strengthen action to reduce air pollution.

Another and quite different air pollution challenge is the indoor air pollution of the poor. Over half of people in developing countries still rely on biofuels, including wood, dung and agricultural wastes, for cooking and heating, most of which is burnt indoors. Between 10 per cent and 20 per cent of the fuel used is not fully burnt, releasing a wide range of harmful air-borne pollutants at concentrations one or two orders of magnitude above safe limits. Globally, indoor air pollution of fine particles from fuels like charcoal is ranked in the top ten causes of mortality, causing up to 2.4 million premature deaths a year from respiratory problems and heart attacks (GEO Year Book 2006 Ethically this is a problem of poverty and should be addressed as part of any poverty reduction strategy. In the short term, simple improvements in clean-burning stove technology and household ventilation can help. Making clean and affordable energy available to every family should be a high priority.

Today, air pollution, whether the debilitating smog of urban areas, the "brown cloud" over Asia that is blocking so much sunlight as to affect agriculture, or the smoke people are obliged to breathe in their own homes, symbolizes the general failure of the major actors in society, including every individual, to take responsibility for the environmental and human health effects of their actions, often imposed far away. Any action strategy for air pollution control should therefore include a public education component. The freedom to breathe clean air should be seen as an inalienable human right and be defended accordingly.


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Last updated 8 May 2006