Sustainable energy is answer to wider crisis: EU's Hedegaard

BRUSSELS Tue Jan 31, 2012 11:54am EST

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Energy efficiency offers one of the best tools for tackling the world's debt and social crises as sustainable development comes in from the margins to the mainstream of economic debate, the European Union's climate chief said on Tuesday.

EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard was speaking after Monday's summit of EU leaders sought ways to create jobs as well as to deal with massive amounts of debt. At the same time, data showed euro zone unemployment had reached the highest level since before the launch of the single currency.

"When we want to adjust our economics and make them more resilient, can anyone come up with a better proposal than to address energy efficiency?" Hedegaard asked.

"We must bring sustainable development from the margins of the economy to the mainstream of the global economic debate," she said. "It sounds easy, maybe even logical, but everybody knows it's a very different kind of thinking."

An example would be adapting buildings with better insulation in Europe, which could create up to half a million jobs in the years to 2020, Hedegaard has said.

It would also cut Europe's energy import bill, which for oil alone rose to 315 billion euros ($413 billion) last year.

Such a figure equates to a significant chunk of Greece's debt, estimated to reach 420.6 billion euros this year, nearly 200 percent of its gross domestic product.

"How do we want to spend our money? Do we want to continue to pour it into Saudi Arabia and elsewhere?" Hedegaard asked.

She was speaking at a roundtable session to discuss a report published on Monday by the U.N.'s high-level panel on Global Sustainability.

Hedegaard is one of the 22 members of the panel, which was set up to formulate a blueprint for sustainable and low carbon development.

The report cited the urgent need to tackle shortfalls of food, water and energy as the world's population continues to grow.

Hedegaard drew the contrast with previous centuries when the prices of resources fell progressively. Now, they are expected to continue to rise as the scramble for commodities intensifies.

The U.N. report includes 56 recommendations, but Hedegaard said there was a need to focus on priorities in the run-up to the United Nations conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro in June.

"My concern is for the next two or three months, everybody will be just talking about everything without specific priorities. Then we will come up with paper, paper, paper without making any difference," Hedegaard said.

SUSTAINABLE ENERGY FOR ALL

One real target was working out how to ensure sustainable energy for all by 2030, she said, as well as to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Asked for a working definition of sustainable, Hedegaard said it referred to development that combined social, economic and environmental factors.

The conference on sustainable development, named Rio+20, will mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, which was regarded as a step on the way to the Kyoto process on tackling climate change.

After initial progress in raising the world's awareness of the need for more sustainable growth, the advent of economic crisis has made it much more difficult to focus politicians' attention beyond urgent matters such as spiraling debt.

Expectations for the U.N. climate conference in Durban last year were low, but Hedegaard and the EU team of negotiators were credited with keeping the multilateral process alive, although some environmental groups have said it is in intensive care.

"What we did achieve in Durban was that the whole world had to accept that we are moving forward together," Hedegaard said.

"Durban could have delivered nothing and that would have created a very problematic background for Rio."

Instead, it showed the multilateral process still had a role to play, marking a shift from a world divided into North and South, rich and poor, developing and developed, to an interdependent one.

"We saw the start of this paradigm shift in Durban," Hedegaard said, citing the EU's close collaboration with small island states and least developed nations, rather than its traditional allegiance with the West.

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