The importance of natural resources for economic development was emphasized in 1970 when the Economic and Social Council established the Committee on Natural Resources. The committee develops guidelines for advisory services to governments, reviews arrangements to coordinate UN activities in natural resources development, and evaluates trends and issues concerning natural resources exploration and development, as well as prospects for selected energy, water, and mineral resources.
During the 1970s, the Committee on Natural Resources played an important role in focusing world attention on the status of the global stock of water resources to meet human, commercial, and agricultural needs. As a result of an initiative of the committee, the UN Water Conference was convened in 1977 in Mar del Plata, Argentina. The conference adopted an action plan to guide international efforts to effectively manage, develop, and use water resources. To give impetus to the Mar del Plata Action Plan, the General Assembly, in 1980, launched the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (1981–90).
In 1973, the General Assembly established the UN Revolving Fund for Natural Resources Exploration, which began operation in 1975. The fund, financed from voluntary contributions, is intended to provide additional risk capital for mineral exploration in developing countries. In 1981, the fund was authorized to extend its exploration activities to geothermal energy.
During the 1970s, with the rise in and volatility of costs for petroleum, affecting the economies of all countries, particularly those of the poorer countries, and the growing awareness that known supplies of petroleum would, in the long run, be unable to meet global requirements, more attention was focussed on new and renewable sources of energy. This led to the General Assembly's decision to convene, in Nairobi in August 1981, the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy. The conference examined alternative forms of energy, including solar, bio-mass, geothermal, and ocean energy; wind power; hydropower; fuelwood and charcoal; peat; and the use of draft animals for energy purposes. It adopted the Nairobi Program of Action for the Development and Utilization of New and Renewable Sources of Energy as a blueprint for national and international action. The Nairobi Program identified five broad areas for concentrated action: energy assessment and planning; research, development, and demonstration; transfer, adaptation, and application of mature technologies; information flows; and education and training.
Endorsing the Nairobi Program later that year, the General Assembly set up an interim committee to launch immediate implementation and, in 1992, established the Committee on the Development and Utilization of New and Renewable Sources of Energy, open to the participation of all states as full members. Later in 1992, in response to the requirements of implementing UNCED's Agenda 21, this committee was combined with the energy portion of the Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, and became a new standing committee of ECOSOC: the Committee on New and Renewable Sources of Energy and on Energy for Development. The Committee on Natural Resources now concentrates mainly on water and mineral resources. Each committee has a membership of 24 government-nominated experts who are elected by ECOSOC.
The first session of the new Committee on New and Renewable Resources and Energy met in New York from 7–18 February 1994. The Secretary-General reported to the committee that in 1990 new and renewable energy sources accounted for 17.7% of the total energy consumption. The drop in oil prices during the 1980s had led to a decline in investment in renewable energy resources, but growing concern for the fragile state of the world's environment lent urgency to efforts to find alternatives to burning fossil fuels and wood, which were contributing to the threat of global warning.
At its first session, the committee noted that the Nairobi Program had led to progress in the application of large-scale technologies, such as hydropower and geothermal energy, and had helped bring to maturity solar energy and wind technologies. However, the overall impact of these new technologies remained insignificant. The committee identified four domains for action by member states: more efficient use of energy and energy-intensive material; increased use of renewable sources of energy; more efficient production and use of fossil fuels; and fuel substitution from high carbon to low carbon-based fuels. It also called for integrated national action programs for developing energy systems; for removing subsidies on conventional sources of energy; establishing support for new, environmentally sound technologies; and finding ways to use wasted energy, such as waste heat from industrial processes. Its report to ECOSOC also recommended the establishment of regional "centers of excellence" to provide training, technology support, and resource data.
Another positive development in this field in the 1990s was the increasing recognition by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that energy conservation makes good economic and environmental sense. Public outcry over displacement of local populations by big dams and destruction of rain forests for grazing projects funded by the World Bank had led it to institute an environmental assessment on every project it undertook. In 1992 the IMF also began to study the impact of its policies on its member nations' environment. The bank also branched out into supporting new sources of energy, for example by lending Mauritius US $15 million to support a program to generate 10–20% of that nation's future energy needs by burning sugar-cane waste product readily available in that country.
Addressing another important area in the energy field—the use of nuclear energy for the economic and social development of developing countries—the General Assembly, in 1977, set in motion arrangements for an international conference on the subject. The first global effort in this field, the UN Conference for the Promotion of International Cooperation in the Peaceful Uses of Nuclear Energy, was held in Geneva in 1987. Although unable to reach agreement on principles acceptable to all, the participants at the conference exchanged views and experience on topics ranging from the production of electricity to the various applications of nuclear techniques in food and agriculture, medicine, hydrology, research, and industry.
The first session of the newly reconstituted Committee on Natural Resources was held in early 1993. Its second session met in New York in early 1994. In the 1990s the focus of the Committee on Natural Resources became the implementation of the recommendations of Agenda 21, particularly measures to promote the more rational and sustainable use of natural resources. In the chairman's summary of the meeting, he noted that mineral and water resources had to be seen as finite and valuable resources, and that their production and consumption affected other constituents of the environment. Therefore, a holistic approach was required to the planning and management of natural resources within the geographical boundaries of each country and also in the consideration of the global impact of national policies or measures. A continued call was made for integrated approaches to water and land management. The committee emphasized the need to consider natural resources as a whole, rather than by individual sectors, such as agriculture and industry.
The committee also noted that the fundamental importance of mineral resources to economic development and quality of life had not been adequately reflected in Agenda 21. It recommended that the need to ensure the sustainable supply of minerals should be a key issue for deliberations on Agenda 21.
The committee's discussion on mineral resources was influenced by the impact of privatization of state mineral enterprises on people in the developing countries and economies in transition. While there seemed to be a new trend toward closer understanding between these countries and transnational corporations, the committee stated that governments should promote measures to reduce destruction of the environment from private mining operations. It also recommended that governments promote measures to encourage better use of existing resources through recycling and substitution.
In 1998 the Committee on New and Renewable Sources of Energy and on Energy for Development and the Committee on Natural Resources were merged into one expert body—the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources for Development, which serves as a subsidiary body of ECOSOC. The new committee, which meets biennially for two weeks, is made up of two subgroups of 12 experts each; one sub-group deals with energy and the other with water resources. The geographical distribution of the 24 members is: six members from African States; five from Asia; four from Latin American and the Caribbean; three from Eastern Europe; and six from Western European and other states. The term of office is four years.
The reconstituted committee met for the first time in April 1999, during which it worked to prepare a draft paper for the next, eighth, session of the Commission on Sustainable Development. The committee had before it various reports from the Secretary-General, including: a report on environmentally sound and efficient fossil energy technologies, which highlighted the need to increase efficiency of fossil energy use, improve environmental compatibility of fossil technologies, and shift to fossil fuels with lower environmental impacts, such as natural gas; the report on renewable sources of energy, which emphasized wind energy and stressed the importance of continued research and development in this area; the report on rural energy policies, which stated that service to rural areas remains inadequate (of the estimated 3.1 billion people in rural areas, approximately 2 billion had no access to electricity); the report on energy and transportation, which reviewed global transportation trends in both developed and developing nations; and the report on spatial planning of land (including minerals) and water resources, which identified emerging issues and highlighted the finite nature of the earth's resources.