In thousands of ways, UN policy helps shape how we respond to emerging crises, from basic poverty to world political events, from food to climate change and population. What is emerging, however, is that UN analyses are increasingly diverging from reality – as they attempt to describe our future, they have failed to adequately (or at all) take into account that most basic of all considerations, material limits on energy resources.
The UN is one of the most powerful organizations in the world influencing international policy – the IPCC, the Populaton Council, the FAO – their work informs how governments and NGOs address a host of issues from women’s rights to civil conflict, from water resources to world hunger. And while the UN has been a leader in study and inclusion of factors often ignored or understated by individual governments – they have taken the lead on climate change, warned of the coming water conflicts, etc… and led the way in a host of areas.
Unfortunately, the UN has not been a leader on peak oil or energy depletion. Consider the IPCC’s assumptions about available fossil fuels in the ground – they completely ignore the emergence of geological limits. While many people have attempted to correct this, and some members of the IPCC and many of the climate change community have recognized that the geological limits that we face on oil and other fossil fuels are highly relevant, at this point, the IPCC is still using inaccurate figures. Kjell Aleklett and James Hanson have worked together on this – and shown that the IPCC’s assumptions are cornucopian. While we know that we can still cross critical tipping points with the fossil fuels we have, we do need to understand how geology will shape this issue. More importantly, any framing of climate change as a lone issue leaves out a central portion of the picture.
While a number of energy leaders have taken the IPCC correctly to task, but this is a UN-wide issue, not just an IPCC issue. The UN must take resource limits solidly into account across the board – for example, in the Millenium Development goals, assuming longer term continued urbanization and development in the absence of the energy resources to support them may not be correct. Assuming that the energy will be present for long-term continued globalization as well is an assumption that simply isn’t justified with the available resources – asking the important question – what will the world look like as energy resources rise in price and diminish in availability is critical for a clear-eyed picture of our future. Even the most recent UN report to hit the news – that population projections for the world are on the rise – contains in it the hidden assumption that fossil fuels will be there to make and distribute contraception and HIV drugs, to send more girls to school, to bring more people into cities.
We cannot allow our sense of the future to rely simply on assumption – the UN needs to come to understand the energy and resource picture more fully and to incorporate it into all of its committees. Just as climate change will transform our society, so will peak oil – and we know far too little about how.
Peak oil changes the world picture entirely – agroecological responses to our food crisis, endorsed by several UN reports in the last few years, become not just a good idea but an absolute necessity when you have to reduce the amount of energy consumed in agriculture. Understanding why we will be tempted to burn coal – and how to avoid it is critical to our climate picture. The UN’s emergent focus on women’s impact in reducing poverty and improving lives must continue – but must move in areas that aren’t fossil fuel dependent. We must prepare for a less-globalized, not more globalized society, and one struggling with new poverty in new places as climate change and peak oil come together. Human rights of all sorts will be affected by the changes that are coming – if we do not wish to lose gains because we are surprised by depletion, we must prepare to hang on to them in a lower energy society.
There is, at this moment, as far as I know, no comprehensive UN study on energy resources and their future. This is both a shame and a scandal – we are preparing for the coming century without a clear picture of the real problems that beset us. Every nation on earth relies on UN research and material to make decisions – and that material is becoming increasingly irrelevant.