Benefits of low-carbon technologies far outweigh resource challenges: UN report

Low-carbon technologies help keep the air clean, save water and cut land use. But steps need to be taken to reduce their unintended environmental impact, such as an increased use of metal or resources, according to a new UN report.

Climate sceptics aside, almost everyone would agree that there are clear environmental benefits from the use of energy efficiency, low-carbon technologies, particularly when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, and land and water use.

But the impact of transforming the way energy is supplied and used on the environment and on natural resources have been less than clear.

“We are on the right track. We know that cleaning up the air we breathe gives rise to huge benefits to both human and environmental health, and we know, too, that low-carbon energy efficiency technologies can help us reduce damaging climate change,” Erik Solheim, head of UN Environment, said in a statement.

“But we’re also clear on the need for greater action on building a circular economy that cuts waste, and on production innovations that could also create new, green jobs.”

A new UN report seeks to provide answers to these critical questions by providing a global assessment of the benefits, risks and trade-offs society faces when energy efficiency technologies are deployed alongside low-carbon electricity supply technologies.

Green Technology Choices: The Environmental and Resource Implications of Low-Carbon Technologies looks at eight energy efficiency technologies and 36-technologies across buildings, industry and transportation.

It found that the environmental benefits of implementing these technologies are immense: under the 2-degree scenario, low-carbon energy production and energy efficiency technologies have the potential to cut around 25 billion tonnes a year of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Human health would also stand to benefit, as the use of low-carbon energy technologies could cut more than 17 million tonnes per year of particulate matter and over 3 billion tonnes of emissions toxic to humans.

The benefits to our air would be mirrored on land and water: low-carbon energy technologies could save more than 200 billion cubic metres of water a year and nearly 150,000 square kilometres of land occupation by 2050.

At the same time, the transformation to low-carbon technologies will require over 600 million tonnes of metal resources over the same period for additional infrastructure and wiring needs. And any decarbonisation of electricity must be accompanied by the electrification of transportation, especially in regions that rely on coal and oil-based electricity, to avoid an increase in the use of fossil fuels.

“The report is important because it is only by having a complete picture of the impacts of low-carbon technologies throughout their full life-cycle that governments and regulators can put in place policies to maximise environmental benefits,” writes the UN.

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