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WEF Addresses Energy Poverty, Rio+20

30 January 2012: The World Economic Forum (WEF) held its annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, from 25-29 January 2012, gathering industry, business, government and other world leaders to discuss current issues. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon participated in two panels, on ending energy poverty and on the perspectives for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), warning “we cannot build a green economy on the backs of the poorest and most vulnerable people.”

On perspectives for Rio+20, participants called on the private sector to play a greater role in engaging with sustainability, and proposed specific benchmarks to be adopted at the UNCSD, such as: creating a new measurement called the Green Gross Domestic Product that will take into account environmental and sustainability factors; eliminating subsidies that contribute to environmental degradation, such as those for fossil fuels; and establishing sustainability criteria for development financing.

A panel on "Reshaping Green Agendas" considered whether the sustainable consumption discourse needs to be reshaped. Participants noted the plethora of “green” labels on products despite the lack of a reliable, universally-acceptable definition of what constitutes an environmental sustainable product or a reliable life-cycle analysis.

A panel on the "Sustainability Context," which included Meles Zenawi, Prime Minister of Ethiopia, highlighted failures of the current model of economic growth, calling for more public-private partnerships and “draconian” rules and regulations setting restraints and limits on consumption. Regarding Africa's situation, panelists stressed the urgency of adaptation in agriculture to face the inevitable consequences of climate change in the region. Participants underscored that since "Africa is being priced out of fossil fuels, it has no choice but to follow the 'green path' of development, including finding alternative sources of energy."

A panel on the "Natural Resources Context" highlighted that natural resource use must be evaluated as a whole, as some proposed green alternatives consume more natural resources than their conventional counterparts. Participants emphasized that water will be the critical resource issue facing the world in the near term.

The issue of water also was taken up in a panel on the "Energy Context," which highlighted the trade-offs between shifting to lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting fossil fuels, such as natural gas, and the vast quantities of water used during the extraction or "fracking" of natural gas. This panel also highlighted that renewables are growing steadily and are expected to reach 20 percent of China's energy mix by 2020.

Finally, a panel addressed the question of what to do if a major biological system collapses, with the directors of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) cautioning that ecosystem reconstruction, though possible, is significantly more costly than ecosystem conservation. [World Economic Forum 2012 Annual Meeting Website] [Session Summary on What is a Biological System Collapses] [Session Summary Reshaping Green Agendas] [Session Summary Natural Resource Context] [Session Summary Sustainability Context] [Session Summary the Global Energy Context] [Session Summary on redefining Sustainable Development] [UN Press Release]