Sustainable Development Goals — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:55 pm on 17th September 2015.

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Photo of Lord Rees of Ludlow Lord Rees of Ludlow Crossbench 12:55 pm, 17th September 2015

My Lords, the SDGs are indeed ambitious and wide-ranging, perhaps too much so. Our Government are surely right to argue for a focus on a subset of them, especially on those with well-defined, implementable outcomes and targets.

I will focus my remarks on goal 7, which is to,

“Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

This is of course a key cross-cutting goal, because electricity is vital for economic development and quality of life. The phrase “sustainable development” was introduced by the Brundtland commission in 1987 and was defined as,

“development that meets the needs of the present”— especially those of the poor—

“without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

The focus on future generations means that climate change must be held in check—and that is goal 13. Climate change will hit hardest those who have contributed the least to its cause. Heat stress will most hurt those without air conditioning; crop failure will most affect those who already struggle to afford food; and extreme weather events will most endanger those whose homes are fragile.

The eventual elimination of fossil fuels must be a worldwide imperative if climate change is to be controlled, but there is a special urgency to supply clean energy to the poorest in developing countries. Millions of such people have their health severely damaged by exposure to toxic fumes from stoves burning wood or dung. They lack even small-scale electrical power for lighting their homes and charging basic appliances. This can be supplied by solar panels and batteries, but a higher generating capacity will be needed to power transport and economic development. Unless the costs of renewables fall, developing nations will be under pressure to build polluting coal-fired power stations to supply this need.

The impediment to “decarbonising” our economy is that renewable energy is still expensive to generate. Moreover, power from the sun and wind is intermittent, so we need cheap ways to store it on a large scale. Fortunately, technology in solar energy and batteries is proceeding apace.

A group led by Sir David King and the noble Lord, Lord Layard, together with five other Members of this House, including me, is promoting a campaign to encourage as many countries as possible, especially those in the G20, to expand and co-ordinate publicly funded R&D into “clean energy”, especially into solar power, storage techniques and the design of “smart grids”. The faster this research proceeds, the sooner will the cost of power from “renewables” come down and become as cheap as coal-fired power stations. We call this the Global Apollo Program, to highlight an analogy with the American “Moonshot” programme, which exemplified how a spectacular goal could be achieved if the motivation were there. But whereas the original Apollo programme was fuelled by superpower rivalry in the Cold War, this programme will be international and co-operative. The target will be that new-build baseload energy from renewable sources becomes as cheap as new-build coal within 10 years.

Although wind, hydro and geothermal energy is the best choice in some locations, our focus is on solar. That is because the sun provides 5,000 times more energy to the earth’s surface than our total human demand for energy. It is particularly abundant in the developing nations of Asia and Africa, where most of the future increase in world energy demand will occur. There are two techniques: photovoltaics, which can be used on a small scale and does not need direct sunlight; and concentrated solar power, which is larger scale and requires direct sunlight. Unlike fossil fuel, solar energy produces no pollution and no miners get killed. Unlike nuclear fission, it leaves no radioactive waste.

If renewable energy is to become the primary source of energy, it must be capable of being stored and supplied when and where it is needed. There is already a big investment in improving batteries, but there are other possibilities, including thermal storage, capacitors, compressed air, fuel pumps, fly-wheels, molten salt, pumped hydro and hydrogen. The need is, therefore, to accelerate the development of cheaper solar generators, all storage methods and, thirdly, DC grids to transmit energy efficiently over large distances. This is an arena where public, private and philanthropic efforts need to mesh together, but the hope of those of us promoting the Global Apollo Program is that Governments joining it will pledge to spend an annual average of 0.02% of GDP as public expenditure on the programme from 2016 to 2025. The money will be spent according to each country’s own discretion. We hope that all major countries will join. This is an enhanced, expanded and internationally co-ordinated version of many national programmes.

Incidentally, there is a precedent in the semiconductor field, where since the 1990s the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors has identified the scientific bottlenecks to further cost reductions and has spelt out the advances needed at the precompetitive R&D stage. The Global Apollo Program will follow this model. It will be collocated with the International Energy Agency in Paris but may include countries not belonging to the IEA. All results discovered through the programme will be made publicly available, though patents for all intellectual property will be protected and will remain with those who made the discovery.

In terms of value for money, this Global Apollo Program is an essential component of any serious attempt to manage the risks of climate change, and is better value, incidentally, than subsidising existing forms of clean energy. At relatively small cost, it will contribute powerfully to a safer and better world. The proposed programme has one aim only: to develop renewable energy supplies that can be deployed as cheaply as fossil fuels throughout the developing world.

Solar energy is already competitive for thousands of villages in India and Africa that are off-grid, but in most parts of the world it is still more expensive than energy from fossil fuels, and it becomes economic only due to subsidies or feed-in tariffs. Eventually, these subsidies have to stop, so we are looking for the technologies with the greatest potential for falls in cost year after year. In addition, the materials used should not be constrained in supply nor toxic, the risks of price volatility should be low and the installation payback should be short.

We hope that this rapid development would allow developing countries to leap-frog directly to cleaner energy, just as they have leap-frogged to mobile phones and the internet, bypassing landlines. Speeding up the transition by public pump-priming to accelerate the rate at which these technologies develop is perhaps the only way that the world can reduce the risk of really damaging climate change by the end of the century. But it is hard to focus on benefits or threats so far ahead. For politicians, the immediate trumps the long term; the national trumps the global. Activists and experts by themselves cannot generate or sustain political will. Only if their voice is amplified by a wide public and by the media will long-term causes such as the SDGs rise high enough on the political agenda.

Here we can find powerful allies in the world’s religious faiths. The Catholic Church powerfully transcends normal political constraints. There is no gainsaying its global reach nor its durability and long-term vision, nor its focus on the world’s poor. It is hugely welcome that three months ago the Pope issued an encyclical on climate and environmental issues and that he is attending the UN summit this month. His influence on the meeting and on what happens in Paris in December could be immense, influencing both public and politicians in Latin America, Africa, east Asia and even perhaps in the American Republican Party.

To design wise policies, we need all the efforts of scientists, economists and technologists, but to implement them successfully we need the sustained commitment of our leaders and the full support of the voting public. Our responsibility to our children, to the poorest and to our stewardship of the diverse life on earth surely demands that we do not leave a depleted and hazardous world. That is why we should surely urge our Government to adopt a forceful stance at the UN summit in the hope of ensuring a sustained commitment to the SDGs and, in particular, to accelerating the development of clean energy, which should be high among the goals of that meeting.