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close this bookEnergy after Rio - Prospects and Challenges - Executive Summary (UNDP, 1997, 38 p.)
close this folder2. Energy and Major Global Issues
close this folder2.2 Energy and Environment
View the document2.2.1 Health
View the document2.2.2 Acidification
View the document2.2.3 Climate Change
View the document2.2.4 Land Degradation

2.2.1 Health

energy measures to contribute to the solution of under nutrition must be built into development strategies

The energy-health nexus arises because, without proper control, the production and use of energy can be accompanied by adverse impacts on the environment and, ultimately, on human health.

all megacities in developing countries have air pollution levels well above World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines

The combustion of fossil fuels is the largest source of atmospheric pollution involving sulphur and nitrogen oxides, heavy metals, unburned hydrocarbons, particulates and carbon monoxide, among other directly health-damaging pollutants. Such pollution arises, not only as a result of fossil fuel combustion in power plants and industry, but also from motor vehicles and households.

In urban environments, the transport sector is a major cause of the high levels of air pollution - gaseous pollutants and ultra-fine particulates emitted by petrol-powered vehicles, fine particulates emitted from poorly-maintained diesel engines, secondary (photochemical) pollutants such as ozone and the additional insidious pollutant, lead from traditional petrol use. Of these, suspended particulates are the major cause of concern to human health. All megacities in developing countries, and most industrialised countries, have air pollution levels well above the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. Furthermore, the situation is getting worse because of the high growth rates of vehicle fleets in the context of inadequate road infrastructure and growing urbanisation in many developing countries.

women and children have the highest exposures to indoor air pollution

Household use of biomass (and coal) results in greater human exposure to pollutants because emissions are high, ventilation is often poor, people are generally nearby at the time of use, and the affected populations are large. Significant health effects can thus be expected. The largest direct impacts would seem to be respiratory infections in children (an important class of disease) and chronic lung disease in women.

The energy-health nexus consists, therefore, of the fact that current energy utilisation patterns in rural households give rise to the problem of indoor air pollution affecting an increasing population and, in cities, to the growing problem of urban air pollution.

2.2.2 Acidification

a key concern in developing countries is the potential impact of acidification on agricultural crops

Acidification, the process by which soils and surface waters are depleted of bases and consequently suffer an increase in acidity, results in damage to terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. Thousands of lakes and small streams have become acidified during this century in Europe and North America, and the flora and fauna in these lakes have changed drastically. Many surface waters are entirely devoid of fish, amphibians and other creatures. There has also been significant damage to forests in Europe and North America.

Emissions of sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia give rise to acidifying depositions after chemical transformation and transport in the atmosphere. Sulphur and nitrogen oxides are mainly formed during the combustion of fossil fuels in the power and transport sectors. This is the energy-acidification nexus.

Recognition of this linkage has led to a Sulphur Protocol under the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution in Europe requiring significant reductions of sulphur emissions. However, even if the requirements of the protocol were fulfilled, large areas will have acid depositions well above critical levels.

The prognosis indicates that there is potential for serious damage in many parts of the world that have not experienced this type of pollution problem before. Technologies exist to abate these emissions, but they are costly and need to be put in place on a widespread scale.

In many developing countries emissions are increasing to serious levels. A key concern in these countries is the potential impact on agricultural crops. Whereas in industrialised countries farmers can lime the soils if they become acidified, it is unlikely that poor farmers in the developing world can afford to do so. Acidic deposition is likely to become an important regional issue, particularly in Asia, but also in parts of South and Central America and in Southern Africa.

2.2.3 Climate Change

According to the 1995 Scientific Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “The body of statistical evidence now points towards a discernible human influence on global climate.” This influence is due to the increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases since pre-industrial times, and the effect of this increase on the energy balance of the Earth.

It is now the view of the IPCC that continued increases in greenhouse gas concentrations, as a result of human activity, will lead to significant climate change (enhanced global warming) in the coming century. However, uncertainties still exist limiting our ability to quantify human influence and project the future. Nevertheless, it appears that major changes are required in current fossil-fuel-based energy consumption patterns. This is because business-as-usual is likely to increase carbon emissions by a factor of three by 2100, whereas according to the IPCC, emissions will have to fall far below the present level in order to stabilise the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2).

Earlier IPCC findings spurred governments to sign the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) in Rio (1992). Since 1994, the UNFCCC has now been ratified by more than four-fifths of the UN member states (164 as of end of 1996). The UNFCCC involves voluntary, rather than binding, emission stabilisation commitments. Targets and timetables for emission reductions are now being negotiated. Inventories of human-related emissions of CO, (1990-1995 and 2000 projections) have shown that most industrialised countries will not, in fact, meet their voluntary target of limiting their year 2000 emissions to 1990 levels.

The threat of climate change is principally an energy-related problem. Current energy systems are based on the combustion of fossil fuels which account for 76% of the world’s primary energy. This combustion leads to about three-fourths of the annual human-related emissions of the main greenhouse gas CO2. These annual emissions accumulate, increasing the greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. Even taking into account the quantitative uncertainties, current energy patterns are leading the world down a path that is unsustainable by threatening the global climate. This is the energy-climate change nexus.

2.2.4 Land Degradation

emissions will have to fall below the present level in order to stabilise the atmospheric concentration of CO2

Globally about 2000 million hectares of land have been degraded - an area equal to more than one third of all cropland and forested land. Some 300 million hectares are under such severe stress conditions that damage can be considered irreversible. If left unchecked, most of the remaining degraded land is likely to reach similar conditions. Land continues to be degraded at rates that are high by historical standards. The major causes of land degradation are deforestation, shifting cultivation practices in agriculture, over-grazing and the use of bush fires for short-term gains. Land degradation now affects the lives of hundreds of millions of people and is hampering the development of countries. Stopping land degradation is a high priority in many areas of the world.

Although the production of energy (including biomass energy or bioenergy) is not a major global cause of land degradation (although the impact may be large locally and regionally), energy can play a major role in stemming and reversing the problem. Specifically, the introduction of modern biomass energy systems (e.g., for electricity generation) would put a sufficiently high market price on biomass to make it profitable to restore many of the potentially productive degraded lands to “energy farm quality” so as to be able to serve lucrative biomass energy markets. Thus, the energy-land degradation nexus appears “more a cure than a disease.”