Advice to Germany’s Federal Government

Roadmap to a green society

Switching to sustainable energy systems at the global level will take more than isolated projects and innovations. According to the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), the world needs an entirely new social contract. Countries that are still building their energy infrastructures should invest in renewable energies right from the start.

By Karin Boschert and Benno Pilardeaux

In May next year, two decades on from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the international community will convene once more in Rio de Janeiro to discuss how to make the global economy greener – especially in terms of energy use. The challenge is huge. The ­Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) reckons that the trend in global carbon emissions needs to be reversed by 2020 at the latest; otherwise, the risks of climate change will spin out of control.

In its latest flagship report – on which this article is based – the WBGU proposes a “social contract for sustainability” to safeguard the world’s natural life-support system. To use a Kantian phrase, the focus is on the “conditions of the possibility” for creating a climate-friendly, sustainable society. The study examines technological, social, economic and legal dimensions, and it distinguishes between developing, newly industrialising and industrialised countries. The core issue is the need to switch humanity’s energy systems to safer, environmentally sound and affordable alternatives. However, the WBGU also sees an urgent need for action in other areas, such as urbanisation and land use.

The WBGU argues that various “green economy” concepts to date do not go far enough in terms of addressing the scale of the change needed. The WBGU states that there is a need for epochal institutional reforms, nothing less than a radical transformation of society on a par with the neolithic and industrial revolutions. The report’s authors conclude that the “green economy” is only part of the answer; what is needed, they state, is a “green society” with a proactive state and an active civil society.

Because energy infrastructures last extremely long, they should be geared towards climate protection right at the first development stage, the WBGU argues. Fast-growing newly industrialising countries, in particular, should avoid fossil options because the re-gearing that will eventually become necessary will be very expensive. The first priorities must thus be to switch existing energy systems to greener alternatives and to meet the growing energy needs of developing and newly industrialising countries from sustainable sources. This can be done by boosting energy efficiency and relying on renewable sources.


Whether a global transformation to a green society can be achieved soon is uncertain. To make it possible, the WBGU is in favour of a range of measures that we will briefly summarise here.
Feed-in tariffs: The feed-in tariff model guarantees reasonable remuneration to all enterprises and private individuals if they feed electricity from renewable sources into the power grid. This model should be extended. The International Feed-in Cooperation should become a centre of excellence for this purpose. It deserves more support, both in terms of funds and personnel. The Rio+20-Conference should serve as a platform for launching an initiative to encourage the global adoption of feed-in tariffs. Such a step would also encourage strategic “decarbonisation partnerships” between industrialised, newly industrialising and developing countries, for example, between the EU and North Africa. A new transfer mechanism should be created to fund feed-in tariff systems in developing and newly industrialising countries.
Provision of basic and sustainable energy services: Many rural as well as urban poor suffer from energy poverty. Reducing that poverty would be a relatively inexpensive undertaking. However, inefficient and non-sustainable practices must be avoided from the outset. In particular in rural areas, modernisation of traditional bioenergy could help to fill the energy gap. Development cooperation should lend more vigorous support to building low-carbon energy systems. All relevant institutions – the World Bank, for instance – need to ensure coherence of their development and environment agendas.
Institutional reforms: The inter-agency information platform UN Energy should be elevated to a UN programme in its own right, and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) should be upgraded to a UN specialised agency. These steps would help to strengthen multilateral policymaking on energy and environment. Because energy demand in developing and newly industrialising countries is expected to rise fast, the infrastructures of the countries concerned must expand. Upgrading should be supported and flanked by better global energy and technology cooperation. The International Organisation for Renewable Energies (IRENA), which was established in 2009, should play an important role in the dissemination of the relevant technologies, acting as a “transformation coach”. It should facilitate knowledge transfer to poor countries and contribute to developing the necessary capacities. The G20 should also assume a leading role.
Need for investment: The UN Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change estimates that an annual average of $ 35 billion to $ 40 billion needs to be invested through to 2030 to supply all of the world’s people with energy. At the same time, carbon emissions must be made expensive by carbon pricing. Subsidies for fossil fuels should be phased out. More­over, developing countries and newly industrialising countries should get support under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The UNFCCC’s Green Climate Fund should be used to promote mitigation projects that lead to environmentally sound development. Funds rich nations pledged for mitigation, technology transfer and capacity-building must be provided on top of official development assistance.
Green economy roadmap: Investors need confidence. That is no different when sustainable energy provision is at stake. For investment to happen, a stable and reliable long-term investment climate is needed – in other words: climate protection laws and national decarbonisation strategies are necessary. To speed up the transformation, the Rio+20-Conference should approve something like a binding “UN green economy roadmap”, defining targets and timeframes. This approach should next translate into national strategies with verifiable indicators and be brought in line with national poverty reduction strategies.
Urbanisation: Cities will play a key role in the transformation process because they account for around 75 % of global end energy consumption. Rapid urban expansion, especially in Asia, needs to be carried out in a sustainable manner. Regular status reports on urban energy use would be helpful. Institutions such as the UN, multilateral development banks and ­other development agencies should support climate-friendly solutions for urban areas.
Land use: Nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions is attributed to land use changes (agriculture and deforestation). At the same time, competition for land is growing sharply. Countries with large forests should form strategic networks to stop destructive forest use. The UN programme Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD) should be strengthened. Moreover, low-carbon farming deserves more international support.

The WBGU sees the recommendations outlined above as part of a comprehensive package of measures, which can be updated dynamically. Many of the recommendations are not new. But fast-tracking, scaling up and combining them in ways to maximise synergies would accelerate the transformation, the WBGU argues. Its flagship report speaks of an “open search process”. It has specific objectives, but its outcome cannot be defined yet.

Race to the future

Action needs to be taken in every country and region. The obligation first falls on the industrialised countries because of their historical responsibility. Without a committed effort by newly industrialising and developing countries, however, global climate protection cannot succeed. If individual countries lock themselves into high-carbon options, global development will be hindered, the WBGU warns.

In principle, low-income countries could meet their energy needs cleanly, safely and simply from renewable sources, especially from sustainable bio­energy options. However, most developing and even some newly industrialising countries do not have the resources to accomplish the transition alone, the report points out. The countries concerned need financial and technological support; they require expertise and must build capacities. If they manage to base their energy systems on renewable resources early on, they will skip certain stages of technological development. The reward would be achieving several goals at once, including poverty reduction, supply security, economic development and higher standards of life.

Many countries have already started to rise to the challenge, endeavouring to decouple more prosperity from greenhouse emissions. China, India, Indonesia, South Korea, Costa Rica, the EU and several states of the USA are among those that have begun to take action.

The next innovation cycle needs to spare re­sources and ease the pressure on the climate. Many private-sector companies understand this. The race for pole position in a pioneering new age has already begun. This dynamism offers opportunities to developing and newly industrialising countries.

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The UN Sustainable Development Goals aim to transform economies in an environmentally sound manner, leaving no one behind.