Speech: The golden thread of sustainable development

16 July 2020

Scott Foster, director of the Sustainable Energy Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), describes how energy is the "golden thread" that connects the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, and that nuclear power has a role to play in the energy mix of the future. The following is the text of the presentation Foster gave during the webinar the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency held today to discuss its newly published Policy Brief, Nuclear power and the cost-effective decarbonisation of electricity systems.

Scott Foster, director of the Sustainable Energy Division at UNECE (Image: YouTube)

"The title I bear as the director of sustainable energy has a bearing on what we're discussing today because the issue of what we mean by 'sustainable' is clearly important. On the one hand we're talking about the climate and reducing the carbon intensity of our energy system, and addressing the climate issues is critical. But there's a whole other part of the world that's also worried about the climate but their first priority is putting food on their table, putting a roof over their head and educating their children.

So the challenge we face is coming up with an integrated solution, which we call 'energy for sustainable development' - providing the energy that we require, yes, but doing so in a way that meets the climate objectives. So in UNECE we've undertaken a project called Pathways to Sustainable Energy. What we find is that pretty much all technologies have to be involved. We're not going to get to two degrees and we're not going to deliver on the development agenda without it.

I like to refer to [Lawrence Peter] 'Yogi' Berra, the American baseball manager, and he always talked about, 'When you come to a fork in the road, take it'. He meant, take the right fork or the left fork to get to his house. When I talk about a fork in the road, I’m talking about the prongs of a fork. When people say, 'We've got to do renewables and energy efficiency', they're absolutely right, but the reality is that 80% of the energy mix today is fossil, and even in a two-degree scenario 56% of the energy mix will still be fossil.

So we need to do energy efficiency, we need to do renewables, we need to deal with low-carbon solutions for fossil and we need to deal with nuclear; we have to have it as part of the mix. The results show that if we exclude nuclear from the mix, we will not make it. The challenge that we face in the public dialogue and the public debate and with governments is that there seems to be an allergic reaction, whether it's talking about investments or policies towards both fossil and nuclear.

If we look at the path that we're on today, we're really heading towards four degrees or six degrees and we're getting there faster and faster, and this is true even though we've seen this coming for years. The first paper I ever looked at on climate change was in 1978 and it would have been much easier had we started dealing with it back then than what we are now trying to deal with, which is a steeper and steeper cliff.

Now the challenge that we face is we've got to get everybody around the table; everybody has got to be involved. Wagging our fingers and telling people, 'You’re bad and you shouldn’t do what you’re doing', won't deliver. Every country has got its own endowment of natural resources, its own legacy of culture and legislative heritage etc. There's not one pathway that's going to take us to the destination. Brazil's going to do what it needs to do; Luxembourg is going to go what it needs to do. There's a multitude of pathways out there. Whether you're in one country or another, we should be able to anticipate that governments are acting in our interests as citizens, and that they're going to be acting rationally - rationally socially and rationally environmentally and rationally economically.

So even though we have this multitude of pathways, there are some common themes. There does need to be a real price on carbon and we're not there yet; whether it's a tax or a carbon market. As we move away from carbon-based technologies, there needs to be some kind of a just transition, taking account of these large industrial complexes with the urban communities that have emerged around them. We can't now just snap your fingers and wish them away.

Now one of the key drivers and what we're pushing for is to fundamentally reinvent energy as a service industry rather than as the commodity industry that it’s always been. Up till now, we've always been dealing with making money by selling kilowatt hours, tonnes of coal, cubic metres of gas. We've got to change that to heating, cooling, mobility etc. So what we've been looking at is focusing on the cross-cutting connections among all of the Sustainable Development Goals and when we think about energy it is the golden thread that connects them.

We're not going to deliver on the 2030 Agenda, which is for quality of life globally, unless we get the energy equation right. How are we going to do that? We've got to involve everyone in decision-making to build consensus and to increase public acceptance. The work that we're doing on carbon neutrality right now is looking at the pathways to a sustainable future, and carbon neutrality is a stepping-stone; it's a stepping-stone to the cost-effective attainment of sustainable energy.

So we're trying to explore countries’ options. When we get there, we’re going to have a proper placement of nuclear, high-efficiency, low emissions technology for fossil, hydrogen, renewables, energy efficiency, and the rest of it, will be part of the sustainable energy mix. We need to be cost-effective in how we reduce the carbon intensity, but that doesn’t mean cutting corners.

A lot of folks are talking about COVID-19. One of the things that I think jumps out at us is the fallacy of inertia. How many of the things that you’ve been doing every day and suddenly you stop and say, 'Wow, maybe we could have done this a different way'. So there are long-term consequences from all of the demand destruction that we've seen; we do need to build back better. A good example is schools. My kids are trying to do telecommuting from school and all of the teachers are trying to do on the internet the way they've done it in the classroom. That doesn't work, so there's a process reinvention that needs to occur and that which applies to schools, applies pretty much throughout the economy.

Today's energy systems are not going to be able to deal with new crises - extreme weather, future pandemics, supply chain disruptions. Resilience is key - resilience in the energy system, better organisation of cities and our work environment.

To go slightly poetic: If we want a phoenix to rise from the ashes of this pandemic, we're going to have to address the quality of life issues for a planet that has nine billion souls. So we're not looking at today; we’re looking at 2050. We've got to deal with that forward looking, and we have to deliver on our responsibility as caretakers for the natural environment. To quote another American adage, 'It's not nice to fool Mother Nature'."

Scott Foster

The NEA's Policy Briefs are here.