Goal 9 of the Sustainable Development Goals – build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation – is a short phrase which raises many questions.
To start with, what is “inclusive and sustainable industrialization”? It certainly won’t look anything like the industrial economies of the past two centuries. It will need to power a sustainable economy that supports a population far larger than today’s. And it will rely on renewable and recyclable resources that don’t compromise ecosystems. From where we stand now, the challenge is formidable.
Take just one statistic: energy extraction. Estimates of energy return on energy invested (EROI) – the ratio of energy delivered to energy needed to deliver – illustrate how different the future is likely to be from the past.
US oil and gas went from a ratio of over 100:1 in 1930 to 30:1 in 1970 and 15:1 by 2005. Tar sands have an EROI of between 3:1 and 9:1. Wind and hydropower can have a very high EROI for some installations, but can also be quite low. Other renewables and nuclear power have an EROI of less than 10:1, and US corn ethanol is estimated to have an EROI of less than 2:1. For comparison, an estimate of the “civilizational minimum” EROI is 3:1. These figures show that a sustainable economy may be possible, but within tighter bounds.
However, that is the long run, and the Sustainable Development Goals are targets set for the next 15 years. What steps must the world take in the coming decade and a half?