Sustainability, the triple bottom line of economic profitability, respect for the environment and social responsibility: these are the new buzzwords of many a corporate annual report. Global companies everywhere are falling over themselves to declare their adherence to the principles of sustainable development. Is this a new moral crusade on the part of big business, or simply the result of pressure from demonstrators like those in Seattle and Genoa?

The county of Kent, known romantically as the “Garden of England”, has suffered its worst winter drought since the 1920s. In response, the UK Environment Agency warned in February 2006 that, unless serious water conservation measures were brought in by April, the county could within months witness scenes of people queueing in the streets for water as domestic supplies were being cut off.
As the ocean covers three quarters of the surface of the earth, little wonder people see it as a possible source of freshwater. That basically means desalinating it to make it at least clean enough for agriculture and even good enough to drink. How does it work? Distillation is the cheap option, responsible for most desalinised water, but a newer filtering process using membranes, called reverse osmosis, now accounts for nearly half the world’s capacity to turn ocean into freshwater.
Every Thursday at noon the Tribunal de las aguas (water court) meets outside the cathedral in the city of Valencia along Spain’s Mediterranean coast. For more than a thousand years, it is believed, the court has ruled on disputes affecting the irrigation of the arable lands known as huertas, which nourish the lemon trees, the oranges and other crops that give this region its distinctive scents and flavours, and for many, livelihoods as well.

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When world leaders agreed upon the United Nations Millennium Declaration in 2000, and then staged the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development, they set themselves some ambitious world poverty reduction goals: the Millennium Development Goals (MDG). One of the MDGs is to “halve, by 2015, the proportion of the people without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation”. That goal is turning out to be a more complicated proposition than many expected.

In the current financial crisis, risk-weary investors worry more about keeping their own boats afloat than in pumping money into a sector noted for high upfront costs, long pay back periods and low rates of return. Add to that an inefficient use of resources, weak regulation and lack of up-to-date information, and the water sector faces what may prove to be a dry season for investment.  

The private water sector is larger than many people think, with thousands of businesses working every day, for the most part, to implement government policies. Are those businesses doing enough and how might they do more?
Many earlier civilisations at some point found themselves on an economic path that was environmentally unsustainable. Some understood what was happening and were able to make the needed adjustments and survive, even flourish. Others either did not understand the gravity of their situation or, if they did, could not adjust in time. They collapsed. Our global civilisation today is also on an economic path that is environmentally unsustainable, a path that is leading us toward economic decline and collapse.

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Source: NOAA

The Antarctic ozone hole, as measured by NOAA’s Solar Backscatter Ultraviolet (SBUV) instrument, during October 2006.

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Source:V. Smil

Are we about to switch to new energy sources? Grandiose plans are being drawn up for installing veritable forests of giant wind turbines, turning crops and straw into fuel ethanol and biodiesel, and for tapping solar radiation by fields of photovoltaic cells. As with most innovations, there is excitement and high expectation. Will these developments and other renewable energy conversions one day replace fossil fuels? Eventually they will have to, but a reality check is in order.

Global electricity demand declined in 2009 for the first time since the end of World War II according to OECD estimates. Electricity demand experienced a constant climb over the second half of the 20th century through the oil crises of the 1970s, the Black Monday crash of 1987, and on through the dot-com bubble bursting at the turn of the millennium as development countered all downward forces. The credit crunch of 2008 though, has resulted in a drop of as much as 1.6% based on OECD figures derived from the IMF’s latest GDP growth forecast for 2009.

Energy planning is not easy, and when governments shop around for energy sources, they must balance costs and benefits of available options.
Whether fossil fuels, nuclear energy or alternative sources, a sensible energy policy must also take into account a reliable mix of energy generation to support economic growth, promote the environment and also reduce dependence on imported fuels from possibly unstable exporting countries.

Nuclear energy could help in the battle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but for many the production of nuclear waste outweighs this advantage. One important challenge is to convince an often reluctant public that with new waste disposal techniques, nuclear energy is worth a second look in the interests of sustainable development.

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Source: IEA

There is a vast, unexplored region where an estimated 30% of the world’s oil lies buried, yet only 2% of the world’s exploratory drilling is carried out there. Where is it? The answer is not Antarctica or under the Pacific, but the Middle East. Surprisingly, the world’s largest oil reservoir is under-exploited. Over the last 40 years, the number of wildcat wells drilled in the Middle East has plummeted, and today exploration is nearly zero. A number of reasons have contributed to the decline, from regional conflicts, two decades of low prices and the soaring cost of equipment.

Energy production and consumption patterns are shifting. So are the challenges for investment and global energy policy.

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Source: Uranium 2005: Resources, Production and Demand (OECD/NEA, Paris, 2006)

OECD countries share the same goals of sustainable development, but differ in their views on the role of nuclear energy in achieving those goals. Indeed, few energy sources have been scrutinised in the public spotlight over the years quite as much. The question is simple: is nuclear really a sustainable energy?

While bemoaning the global impact of rich countries’ subsidies on poorer economies, environmentalists are taking a closer look at how the elimination of some subsidies may be detrimental to the environment.

Can biofuels truly compete with petrol? Recent projections suggest that ethanol could represent up to 5% of the world’s transport fuel by 2010. That figure may seem modest at first glance, but it is significant, considering no other alternative fuel has had an equivalent impact on the gasoline market in over 100 years.

Can anything be done to tackle transport problems and steer them to a more manageable level? There has been no shortage of trying.

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The problem of climate change has not gone away, nor will it be wished away. Governments must act. 

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Source: IEA

Global warming, finite fossil fuels and geopolitical risks make a shift to renewable energies inevitable. Though it is a challenge fraught with uncertainties, no action would be worse. An alternative, workable energy strategy is within reach.

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Source: OECD (2006), The Political Economy of Environmental Related Taxes

Can taxation help governments achieve environmental goals with respect to energy use and emissions? Yes, with conditions.

Bus Systems for the Future: Achieving Sustainable Transport Worldwide 

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Source: IEA

The possibility of using renewable energy to produce electricity on a significant scale is a heated debate. The potential of hydropower is well established, and other sources such as geothermal, biomass, solar and wind, even ocean energy, now hold promise. Moreover, they are attractive because they reduce reliance on imported fossil fuels and help cut CO2 emissions. On a micro-scale, to heat home water for instance or run farms, these sources are starting to prove themselves.
Investment in clean technologies can help achieve a wide range of environmental objectives, from mitigating climate change, to controlling air and water pollution, and enhancing resource efficiency in general. Indeed, many governments now see technological innovation as a key channel through which they can lift their economies onto a more sustainable path. But what role can public policies play in encouraging such innovation?

As biofuel production grew fourfold from 2000 to 2008, criticism of the industry seemed to increase nearly as dramatically. Production of these transport fuels, which are based on food crops such as grains, sugar cane and vegetable oils, competes with food crops and drives up food prices, experts argue. Also, from land-clearance needed for cultivation, production and use, these biofuels may actually increase, rather than reduce, greenhouse gas emissions.

Once hailed as the imminent successor to fossil fuels, biofuels are hitting some rough patches. Is it time to apply the brakes? 

Market-based credits can help control emissions alongside other instruments, though the system needs more work. And time. 

Energy has moved to the top of our policy agendas, and with good reason. First, there is the price of oil, which though easing a little in recent months, remains historically high. This has pushed up costs for producers and consumers alike.

Secretary-General Angel Gurría led a high-level mission of OECD economists and environmental experts at the UN Climate Change Conference in Bali in December. In this extract from one of his interventions at the conference, Mr Gurría explains some of the reasons why economics and markets must be at the heart of any effective and equitable strategy to tackle climate change.

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  • IMF Finance and Development Magazine, December 2015

    Powering the Planet: The Quest for Sustainable Energy

    Read the magazine here
  • In Iceland, geothermal power is being used for almost everything. Scientists and engineers from around the world are participating in a course at the United Nations University (UNU) to learn how to use geothermal energy in their own countries.
  • They are green and local--It’s a new generation of entrepreneurs in Kenya with big dreams of sustainable energy and the drive to see their innovative technologies throughout Africa.
  • Pole to Paris Project
  • Send a message from #EarthToParis.
  • From the World Bank: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty
  • Black carbon causes millions of deaths every year and contributes to the warming of the planet. The United Nations Environment Programme explains how reducing black carbon can save lives and help combat climate change.
  • In order to face global warming, Asia needs at least $40 billion per year, derived from both the public and private sector. Read how to bridge the climate financing gap on the Asian Bank of Development's website.
  • How can cities fight climate change?
    Discover projects in Denmark, Canada, Australia, Japan and Mexico.
  • 10 climate-friendly habits everyone should adopt: Although the main aim of COP21 is to reach an international agreement on climate change between government stakeholders, it is also the perfect opportunity to remind citizens of how everyone can help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their day-to-day lives.
  • Climate: What's changed, what hasn't, what we can do about it. Lecture by OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría, hosted by the London School of Economics and Aviva Investors in association with ClimateWise, London, UK, 3 July 2015.
  • Do you know the OECD’s web ending? Or which Serbian American engineer is famous for his electric cars? Try our latest OECD Observer crossword. It’s full of fun facts, simplex in style, and gives you the solution at the tip of a button. You can time yourself too.
  • French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron came to the OECD on 18 September for a webcast discussion on economic reforms, inequality and the outlook, with OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría. You can watch the event by clicking on the photo.
  • Climate change: “We should not disagree when scientists tell us we have a window of opportunity–10-15 years–to turn this thing around” argues Senator Bernie Sanders.

  • In the long-run, the EU benefits from migration, says OECD Head of International Migration Division Jean-Christophe Dumont.
  • Is technological progress slowing down. Is it speeding up? At the OECD, we believe the research from our Future of ‪Productivity‬ project helps to resolve this paradox.
  • An employee prepares breakfast in front of the Eiffel tower at the Parisian luxury hotel Le Plaza Athenee, France July 30, 2015. Nowhere in the world has more accommodation available on Airbnb than Paris. Now the home-sharing website that has transformed budget travel to the French capital is giving its super-deluxe hotels a fright too (©REUTERS/Stephane Mahe).
  • Is inequality bad for growth? That redistribution boosts economies is not established by the evidence says FT economics editor Chris Giles. Read more on
  • Low interest rates here to stay for half a century, says OECD director Adrian Blundell-Wignall.
  • Bill Gates visited the OECD on 26 June. He met with the Secretary-General Angel Gurría to discuss areas of collaboration with his foundation and participated at a briefing session on official development assistance modernisation with OECD experts.
  • The People’s Republic of China decided to enhance longstanding collaboration with the OECD and to join the OECD Development Centre, in a historic visit by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on 1 July to the OECD in Paris.
  • Catherine Mann, OECD Chief Economist, explains on Bloomberg why "too much bank lending can slow economic growth".
  • Interested in a career in Paris at the OECD? The OECD is a major international organisation, with a mission to build better policies for better lives. With our hub based in one of the world's global cities and offices across continents, find out more at .
  • Come va la vita in Italia? How's life in Italy? The OECD Better Life Index is an interactive online platform in seven languages that goes beyond GDP by offering important insights into measuring well-being and quality of life. Try it for yourself!

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