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This year we need a bolder approach to energy

Written by Andrew Scott

The Future We Want’ is the title of the first draft of the Rio+20 document released this week.  It has already produced a flurry of comment, ranging from the cautiously optimistic to the critical.  Appearing just before the World Future Energy Summit and at the start of the UN Year for Sustainable Energy for All, it seems appropriate to look at the Rio +20 draft from an energy perspective.

The structure of the draft reflects the agenda for the Rio Summit, where renewed political commitment to sustainable development will be sought, along with agreement on pursuit of the 'green economy', reform of the international institutional framework for the environment, and the customary agreement on a framework for action.

Energy – the source of over 60% of greenhouse gas emissions and a major part of the green economy – is not specifically mentioned in the political commitments.  However, the framework for action section proposes:

to build on [emphasis added] the Sustainable Energy for All initiative launched by the Secretary-General, with the goals of providing universal access to a basic minimum level of modern energy services for both consumption and production uses by 2030; improving energy efficiency at all levels with a view to doubling the rate of improvement by 2030; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030 through promoting the development of renewable energy sources and technologies in all countries.’ 

Thus, ‘The Future We Want’ does not include commitment to universal access to modern energy services, as proposed by the UN Secretary General.  However, the proposed Sustainable Development Goals to be devised over the next three years and intended to be at the heart of the post-2015 development agenda, may yet include access to modern energy services – recognised to be a prerequisite for meeting the MDGs.

The failure of the international community to agree energy goals 10 years ago at the World Summit for Sustainable Development and at subsequent meetings of the UN Commission for Sustainable Development might be reason for the caution in the Rio+20 document.  But, if not in the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and if not at Rio, when might we see the international community give this commitment?

In the draft declaration, signatories ‘call for provision of adequate financial resources, of sufficient quality and delivered in a timely manner, to developing countries for providing efficient and wider use of energy sources’.  There is also a call for developed countries to meet the target of 0.7% Gross National Product for official development assistance (ODA).  In these straitened economic times, additional financial commitments from the public purse are unlikely.  For this reason, many are looking to climate finance to deliver the additional resources needed for clean energy and energy access.  But Rio will not be a place for decision-making about climate change finance – this is the province of the UNFCCC and the various trust funds (see the ODI-supported Climate Funds Update site for information about these funds.) 

Lack of international agreement on energy access goals is partly down to widely varying national interests resulting from differences in energy resources, development status and geography.  While the Rio+20 draft says ‘We agree that each country should work for low-carbon development’ (para. 71), the green economy section seems to indicate that actions towards this should be voluntary and that ‘the transformation to a green economy should be an opportunity to all countries and a threat to none’.  

The UN Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative includes goals to increase energy efficiency and the proportion of renewables in the global energy mix.  However, given the obvious differing national priorities of fossil fuel producers, fuel importers, and high and low energy consumers, reliance on voluntary actions is an uncertain path towards sustainable development.  How the global imperative of low-carbon energy will be reconciled against the national and private interests vested in carbon-based energy at Rio is unclear.  For this reason, the commitments to emission reduction in the continuing UNFCCC negotiations – from both developed and developing countries – may be more significant for transformation to low-carbon energy systems than anything agreed at Rio.

‘The Future We Want’ contains much that is to be welcomed concerning reform of the international institutional framework and promotion of sustainable development through the green economy, and we can hope that these survive the negotiations between now and June.  However, in this year particularly, a bolder approach to energy for sustainable development is required.  At the very least, Rio should provide:

  1. a firm commitment to universal energy access, even if this is later subsumed into Sustainable Development Goals, and
  2. clarity about how the international institutional framework for sustainable development is going to debate and reconcile the global imperative for clean energy and national energy interests.