By Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella
The development of a sustainable, long-term solution to meeting the world’s energy needs is one of the defining issues of our time. The risks of getting our energy policies wrong are considerable and the consequences large, as numerous conflicts have occurred as a result of competition for resources. If we don’t do something significant to facilitate greater cooperation regarding energy, future conflicts are inevitable. Energy security can briefly be defined as “adequate, affordable and reliable supplies.” As climate security and energy security are inextricably linked, I would hasten to add that there is no energy security without climate security. Indeed, cost-effective mitigation and adaptation strategies– namely, tackling the causes and effects of climate change – must be at the heart of energy policy.
The Case for Access and Efficiency
In formulating policies to promote energy security, the aspirations of developing countries must be considered as a top priority. Reports estimate that 2.6 billion people worldwide rely on traditional biomass for cooking and 1.6 billion people – about a quarter of the total human race – lack access to electricity. More than two thirds of these people live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Given current policies and measures, these numbers are not expected to change. In addition, a lack of reliable, affordable energy results in 4 million premature deaths per year due to household air pollution – almost double those of HIV/Aids and malaria combined. It is the number two killer of women. This level of energy poverty in the developing world is wholly unacceptable and requires focused global action, as current energy systems are failing to meet the needs of the world’s poor.
While energy services alone are not sufficient to eradicate poverty, they are necessary for economic growth. Energy access has a major impact on important developmental accelerators such as education, health, and gender equality. It can improve productivity and enable local income generation. Modern lighting, for example, can extend livelihood activities beyond daylight. Women and girls in many developing countries spend a large amount of their time collecting wood and carrying water, time lost for schooling and revenue-generating activities. Access to modern cooking fuels can contribute to reducing food insecurity, while also reducing environmental degradation. Once established, modern energy services also help reduce costs borne by poor communities by reducing the use of inefficient biomass.
Increasing energy efficiency is often the most cost-effective means to both increase supply and reduce carbon emissions. It can also aid economic efficiency in developing countries – a vital step in boosting competitiveness. Increased energy efficiency allows existing and new infrastructure to reach more people by freeing up capital resources to invest modern energy services. Similarly, energy-efficient appliances and equipment make services more affordable for consumers – residential, commercial and industrial. Any serious vision of a sustainable future requires commitment to improving efficiency of the entire energy supply chain- production, transportation and end-use consumption.
Opportunities in Renewables
The acceleration in technology development, falling prices of renewables, and near-grid parity of some renewable resources is creating opportunities for developing countries to increase the use of low-carbon renewables. Accordingly, promoting their use in developing countries should be a key policy and must be encouraged. Renewables reduce supply pressures and carbon emissions and can help boost development. While different countries will favor different renewables as a result of their own resource endowments, biofuels, wind, hydro, solar, and geothermal all have the potential to contribute to increased energy security.
Natural gas will also play a key role, at least as a transitional fuel towards clean energy. Due to new technologies and techniques, there has been a rise in the availability of gas and a resulting downward pressure on prices in many parts of the world. However, while this may reduce prices in the short-term, these resources are exhaustible. Additionally, as the environmental impacts of new gas development are better understood, the cost of mitigating these impacts would need to be internalized. At the same time, any increase in supply and resultant fall the price of gas could stagnate the pursuit of renewables – adversely affecting the development of long-term solutions. It is important to improve our understanding of this complex interaction and adopt policy measures that can sustain the recent growth in renewables.
A Policy Framework – Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL)
The potential for renewable energy sources is vast; however the speed with which this potential can be utilized is largely dependent on the level of support by governments to stimulate technological advances and help make renewable energy competitive. The greatest potential lies in the power sector—primarily wind, solar, and hydropower sources. In rural and remote areas, which are sparsely populated and currently underserved, decentralized off-grid systems are often the best solution to problems of energy scarcity.
The Trilemma report launched at the World Energy Council congress calls for all countries to pursue the simultaneous achievement of energy security, energy equity, and sustainability. The report revealed that, given the current pace of actions by governments and the private sector, eradicating energy poverty could take another 60-70 years. Furthermore, global carbon emissions reached an all-time high in 2012, and the International Energy Agency (IEA) reported in June this year that the world is on a path toward 5.3 degrees centigrade by the end of the century. We, thus, need a more rapid energy transition to grow economies and spread prosperity, while keeping the earth’s thermostat below 2 degrees temperature rise. Now more than ever, the world needs to ensure that the benefits of modern energy are available to all and it is provided as cleanly and efficiently as possible.
The need for global energy security has inspired the UN Secretary-General’s new Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) Initiative. Launched amidst an emerging consensus on cohesive sustainable development, the initiative engages governments, the private sector, and civil society. It promotes the single aim of achieving sustainable energy through three interrelated energy goals to be reached by 2030:
• Ensuring universal access to modern energy services
• Doubling the improvement rate of energy efficiency
• Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
Though ambitious, these goals are achievable, both in terms of technological innovations and emerging business models, as well as a shift in international funding priorities towards clean energy and other energy issues. It is also important to note that we are not starting from scratch. New technologies ranging from improved photovoltaic cells, to advanced metering, to electric vehicles and Smart Grids give us a strong foundation from which to move forward.
Governments around the world have endorsed SE4ALL. Countries in Africa, the European Union (EU), and the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have pledged their support and are committed to ensuring the three goals are met, establishing clear national targets and implementing national policies. They are also committed to bottom-up approaches. Recently, the governments of Tanzania, Mexico, and Norway led a global online conversation about the importance of energy and its inclusion in the post-2015 development agenda.
Building on the success of Sustainable Energy for All in 2012, the UN General Assembly has designated the decade 2014 – 2024 “the Decade of Sustainable Energy for All”. This year, we are working with our partners to highlight the importance of energy access in improving maternal and child health. Reliable energy remains a critical enabler for primary health care—from lighting to equipment sterilisation, powering medical equipment for diagnostic and treatment purposes, and storing vaccines. Globally, more than a quarter of a million health facilities are dark at night, and health workers struggle to provide care using candles and flashlights. This is particularly risky in childbirth, where access to light can be a matter of life and death. The focus on maternal and child health also targets reducing household air pollution through cleaner cooking and lighting solutions.
The speed and scale of interventions we need to meet our energy goals lie in the private sector. SE4ALL is about possibilities –both to transform our current energy system, which is inequitable and unsustainable, and to ensure our shared security and prosperity.
Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella is Under-Secretary-General at the United Nations and is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Chief Executive Officer for Sustainable Energy for All Initiative. Previously, he was a two-term Director-General of the UN Industrial Development Organisation.
[Photo courtesy of Ashden Awards]