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The promise of Sustainable Energy for All: three key challenges

Written by Andrew Scott


I don’t remember energy ever before having the prominence it has today in debates about international development.  But then, never before has there been an International Year for Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All).  Launched by United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki Moon with a Vision Statement noting his own childhood experience of limited access to energy during the Korean War, the SE4All Initiative is now seeking suggestions from all stakeholders as it prepares an Agenda for Action.

SE4All has three inter-related global objectives. It aims to ensure universal access to modern energy services, to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and to double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. This combination of energy targets deliberately addresses the twin challenges of lack of access to modern energy and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from energy use.

The key statistics of access to energy services should be well-known: 1.3 billion people have no electricity, and 2.7 billion people have no clean and safe energy for that most basic of needs, cooking. Unless policies change and additional measures are taken, things won’t be very different in 2030.

An estimated US$48 billion a year would deliver universal access to modern energy services by 2030. This would be an increase of 3% in global energy investment – only 3%, to meet the basic energy needs of around 33% of the world’s population. But that figure is more than five times the US$9.1 billion invested in energy access in 2010. 

Doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix calls for radical change.    The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 13% of global primary energy supply was from renewable sources in 2010, increasing to 18% by 2035, under existing policies.  To meet climate change objectives, it may be necessary to increase that figure to as much as 24% by 2020, according to analysis reviewed in the United Nation’s Environment Programme’s (UNEP) latest Bridging the Emissions Gap report.

The kind of change needed to meet the third objective is far from clear, though we do know improvements in energy efficiency will contribute significantly to global emission reductions.  According to the SE4All Framework paper (based on as-yet unpublished Global Energy Assessment figures), doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency means a 2.4% annual efficiency gain by 2030, compared to the 1.2% achieved between 1970 and 2008. The IEA, however, expects energy efficiency to improve ‘at a rate twice as high as that seen over the last two-and-a-half decades’.  In other words, policy changes announced before the launch of SE4All are likely to ensure this efficiency objective is achieved anyway.

The UN Secretary General’s advocacy of universal energy access over the past two years has been instrumental in making sure the energy needs of one-third of the world’s population are discussed by policy –makers  at the highest levels. The SE4All Initiative, however, is being launched into a changing and uncertain context.

The Initiative is being linked to debates about the green economy and international environmental governance that will take place at Rio +20, whose outcomes we don’t yet know. With its own time horizon of 2030, SE4All is also linked to debates about the development framework that will succeed the MDGs, which will continue until at least 2015. Furthermore a troubled global economy is putting pressures on public expenditure.

In this context, the SE4All Initiative and its High-level Advisory Group need to address three key challenges.

  • To provide clarity about the additionality the SE4All Agenda for Action will bring. During the briefing in New York last Friday (24 February), officials stated that SE4All would be a platform for existing initiatives; the added value of SE4All would be a platform for co-ordination at the country level. We should also note that commitments  being made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change process to reduce emissions, together with potential financial flows from the Green Climate Fund, will already contribute to SE4All objectives.  Will SE4All, therefore, include any genuinely additional commitments?
  • The UN and the Advisory Group need to give far greater weight to promoting the SE4All objectives, ensuring real ownership amongst non-UN stakeholders. The objectives and the Framework for Action have been drawn up by advisory groups appointed by the Secretary General. Because these have predominantly comprised invited individuals from the world of business, governments or international organisations, they are subject to criticism [for example biofuelwatch]Though roles for different stakeholders are set out in the Framework for Action, wider involvement of these stakeholders – governments, private sector and civil society – has not yet been part of the process.
  • Finally, the Advisory Group needs to clarify how the SE4All Initiative and its Agenda for Action are going to be overseen and how its progress will be monitored internationally.  Some form of mechanism to review progress towards the three goals will be necessary and it is not at all clear how this can be done within the UN system in a way that provides for full involvement of the different stakeholders.