Table of Contents

  • The world faces important decisions on how we generate energy and manage our natural assets—choices with implications that will reverberate for generations to come. Against a backdrop of a rising global population and unceasing pressure on the natural environment, this 2011 edition of the World Economic and Social Survey can guide our collective efforts to achieve a much-needed technological transformation to a greener, cleaner global economy.
  • The World Economic and Social Survey is the annual flagship publication on major development issues prepared by the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (UN/DESA).
  • Since the first industrial revolution, major transformations in energy technology (from muscle power to water, then steam, and later hydrocarbons) and other innovations have generated substantial increases in production and human activity. However, the same technologies that enabled the quantum increases in material welfare have also come at a lasting cost with respect to the degradation of the world’s natural environment. To continue to tread the pathways of past economic development would further enhance pressure on natural resources and would destabilize the Earth’s ecosystem. Even if we were to now stop global growth engines, the depletion and degradation of the world’s natural environment would continue because of existing consumption habits and production methods. Much greater economic progress is needed in order to lift the poor out of poverty and provide for a decent living for all, including the additional 2 billion people who will inhabit the planet by mid-century. Hence, there is an urgent need to seek out new development pathways that will ensure environmental sustainability and reverse ecological destruction, and at the same time serve as the source of decent livelihoods for all of today’s population and for future generations.
  • Energy technologies have been greatly shaping society and the environment for the past two centuries. In fact, modern civilizations are largely dependent on fossil fuel energy technologies, which make high-density urban settlements possible. While technological progress has eliminated many problems, it has also added new and often unexpected ones (Grübler, 1998; Diamond, 2005). Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) arising from the combustion of fossil fuels have been the main cause of anthropogenic global warming. All energy technologies, whether they are fossil-based or not, consume resources, use land and pollute air, water and the atmosphere. Energy use has reached a scale at which planetary boundaries are being breached for a range of essential Earth-system processes, including in terms of global warming and biodiversity loss, which is likely to lead to catastrophic environmental change (Rockström and others, 2009).
  • The increase in prices underlying the 2007-2008 food crisis and the new food price spikes in 2011 have exposed the presence of serious threats to the sustainability of the global food system and its capacity to provide adequate and affordable access to food. Meeting the challenge of expanding food production to feed the world population over the coming decades requires a major transformation in agriculture. The so-called green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s helped boost agricultural productivity worldwide, but did not conduce to a sustainable management of natural resources, nor to food security for many of the world’s poor. The world now needs a truly green revolution in agriculture—one conducive to the kind of technological innovation that aims to radically improve the productivity of small farm holdings through environmentally sustainable natural resource management embedded in broader developmental agricultural support measures.
  • In the 1970s, about 69 natural disasters were recorded worldwide every year. By the 2000s, this average had increased to 350 per year. Changes in the natural environment, owing in part to global warming, have elevated disaster risk and in consequence adaptation to those changes is testing human ingenuity. Developing countries tend to bear a disproportionate share of the adverse consequences of increased disaster risk since multiple vulnerabilities associated with lower levels of development and inadequate resources hinder them from more rapidly building up resilient infrastructure and knowledge capacities for risk reduction.
  • Technological innovation is at the heart of economic and social development. Building technological capacities can help developing countries “catch up” with more advanced countries, and innovation policy must play an important role in facilitating sustainable development. The present chapter argues that green sustainable development-oriented innovation policies should be an integral part of countries’ national development strategies.
  • As discussed in previous chapters, effective national education and innovation systems must match and build upon existing local conditions. It is expected that a great variety of national strategies and institutional approaches will emerge. The present chapter evaluates the global regime that will be required to advance and sustain these diverse national approaches.