Podium Discussion on the occasion of World Environment Day

"Change to a Climate-Friendly Economy"

Vienna International Centre (VIC)
26 May 2008

On Monday 26 May, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Vienna office, together with the United Nations Office at Vienna (UNOV) and supported by UNIS Vienna organized a panel discussion in the run-up to World Environment Day (WED), 5 June, in the Vienna International Centre. The theme of the discussion centred around this year's WED slogan "Kick the Habit: Towards a Low Carbon Economy". Co-organized with the Austrian daily "Die Presse" and sponsored and supported by the Austrian oil and gas company OMV, the event was an innovative way for the voice of business on the one hand, and of science on the other to debate issues around climate change, carbon neutrality and alternative energies, but also the role of corporations, politicians and individual citizens in pursuing a more sustainable way of life.

The panelists were:

The discussion was moderated by science correspondent Martin Kugler of the daily "Die Presse"

The main themes covered were:

1. Climate change as the main challenge of the 21st century

2. Possible answers and solutions by business, specifically the energy industry

Mr Ruttensdorfer spoke of a paradigm shift in the energy industry and in society as a whole. He argued that business as usual was now impossible and that all of us face changes in lifestyle over the next few decades. He outlined various ways forward in energy production, such as the use of biomass and biofuels, alternative energies and carbon capture and storage technologies. However, he said that agriculture must never place the production of 'carstuff' over 'foodstuff', alluding to the current food crisis.

Prof. Schleicher compared the current oil price boom to the oil crisis in the 1970s, but also warned of "predicting the future by looking in the rearview mirror". Echoing Mr Ruttensdorfer, he, too, spoke of a paradigm shift, as concerns traditional economic thinking. He pointed out that oil price rises and the energy market were not being regulated by supply and demand and called for a new model of "backcasting", which he explained as defining desireable scenarios for in 30 or 40 years time and then investigating how to reach them by policy decisions that can and should be taken today. He outlined a wide range of concrete areas and proposals in which it would be possible to achieve more energy efficiency and longer-term sustainability, such as the construction and mobility sectors.

Mr Rudel was the most 'sceptical' panelist. In no way did he put into question the existence of anthropogenic climate change, but he was quite doubtful about the extent of worst-case scenarios and argued forcefully against 'scaremongering'. In a democratic society, he argued, it is impossible to force people to change their lifestyle or behaviour, even if it is in their longer-term interest. Instead he argued for a more moderate approach as concerns awareness-raising and reporting about environmental topics and climate change.

Although there was some disagreement over specific technologies, such as carbon capture and storage (CCS), all panelists spoke of the need for interim solutions and an increased use of and investment in alternative energies. Prof. Kromp-Kolb, however, warned of concentrating too much on climate change and energy production and use. She argued forcefully for a more generic focus on reducing overall consumption, less waste, more efficiency, and a general change in lifestyle towards a more sustainable and more fair and equitable society. "There are many reasons to support sustainability", she said, "climate change is one of them. The others are the pursuit of a more equitable -- even 'happier' -- more content society."

In response to a question from the public, the panelists were surprisingly unanimous in their dismissal, even condemnation, of nuclear power as a potential source of alternative energy. It was felt by all panelists that nuclear power was neither economically feasible (high initial cost, need for intensive research and investment) as a medium- to long-term solution to climate change, nor ecologically desireable or sustainable (use of raw materials, security concerns).

The discussion set the tone for next week's World Environment Day celebrations and "Die Presse" plans to publish a supplement with information and material from the panel discussion on 5 June.