Dr Jamie Pittock, The Australian National University and US Studies Centre
While the Rio+20 negotiations continue in New York, a major international conference, titled Planet Under Pressure, is being held in London. Focusing on solutions to the global sustainability challenge, it will provide scientific advice to the world's governments, on reforms required for sustainability. The intersection of climate change, energy and water policies provides insights into the cross-sectoral challenges that we face, and the opportunities to integrate out planetary stewardship for a sustainable future.
Many people regard climate change as the most pressing environmental problem on Earth. Consequently, policies are being adopted to promote low carbon energy technologies and carbon capture and storage, but many will greatly increase water consumption and impact on freshwater biodiversity. Under the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), for instance, around a quarter of the accredited projects are for ecologically damaging hydropower dams. Water consumption is greatly increased – often in water scarce regions – by technologies like biofuels, hot rock geothermal and solar thermal power stations, pumped-storage back up to wind and solar photovoltaic generators, carbon capture and storage, and sequestration plantations.
Over a billion people lack access to safe drinking water, and nearly three billion lack access to adequate sanitation services. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment identified aquatic biodiversity as particularly imperilled, and freshwater and wild fish as over exploited. Clearly there is a need to conserve the Earth's atmosphere, but should it be at the expense of freshwater ecosystems and services?
Conversely, measures being adopted to adapt water supplies to more variable and changing climates are greatly increasing energy consumption and exacerbating climate change. Water desalination and pumping water long distances to increase supply, are examples.
How then can our governments, businesses and societies make smarter, cross-sectoral decisions that avoid perverse impacts and favour positive synergies? We think there are five complementary solutions:
1. Integrating data. Too often decisions are based on monetary cost per increased unit of a sectoral service rather than considering, for example, the water consumed per unit of energy supplied. Better monitoring, linking sectoral data bases and more comprehensive assessments can better inform decisions.
2. Choosing better technologies. All technologies have costs and benefits, and usually the cheapest is chosen without thought to impacts on other sectors. Choosing different technologies may sustain the supply of a desired service and greatly minimise perverse impacts. For instance, dry cooling is more capital intensive but can reduce water consumption of thermal power stations by 90%, compared to wet cooling (and at a cost of 8% of the energy produced).
3. Integrating markets. Poorly designed markets can create new externalities, for instance, the impacts on water consumption are rarely considered, in the establishment of carbon markets such as the CDM. Markets in natural resources need to be harmonised to eliminate externalities. In South Africa for example, designation under their Water Act of forest plantations as stream flow reduction activities, reduces perverse impacts by requiring forest growers to secure water entitlements and pay fees.
4. Improving governance. Around the world, a great many mechanisms for better cross-sectoral decision-making have been tested, we now need to apply them systematically. These include, providing legal mandates to organisations to consider links to other sectors in their work. Government institutions for cross-scale and cross-sector policy implementation can harness broader expertise. Earlier and broader strategic environmental assessments of new policies and technologies can identify and respond to perverse impacts. Third party accountability mechanisms may identify or prevent unanticipated problems. Adaptive management of policies can identify and apply lessons.
5. Fostering leadership. Policy entrepreneurs play key roles in catalysing reform, and we must consider how to identify, support and promote them.
Sectoral institutions and decision-making are dominant in government, business, academia and civil society. Through the use of these five solutions, our societies will make better cross-sectoral decisions and enable us to exercise sustainable stewardship of this planet.
Planet Under Pressure, 26-29 March
The Planet Under Pressure conference will provide a comprehensive update of our knowledge of the Earth system and the pressure our planet is now under. The London conference will provide scientific leadership in the lead up to Rio +20, and focus the scientific community's and the wider world's attention on climate, ecological degradation, human well-being, planetary thresholds, food security, energy, governance across scales and poverty alleviation.
For more information: http://www.planetunderpressure2012.net/index.asp