SDG 7 and Sustainable Energy Development in Latin America and the Caribbean

©UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Looking back on the recent 70th anniversary of the United Nations and the monumental adoption of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), it is necessary to pause and recognize the historic achievement of the inclusion of SDG 7 on energy in the new agenda. This incorporation of sustainable energy within the SDGs framework is nothing short of a demonstration of the influence of the United Nations and its Member States in transforming world perspectives on crucial issues, and in setting new norms and universal values while solving many global challenges found in today’s politics, economics and environmental debates.

Energy has long been a part of the global debate, the history of which mirrors divergent perspectives that have been under consideration at the United Nations for decades. SDG 7 is a result of this long journey and an important step in the efforts of the United Nations to focus on interrelated social, environmental, economic and policy challenges related to the production, distribution and access to the services dependent upon energy supply.  SDG 7 aims to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” In recent decades, as the United Nations has discussed relative inefficiency of conventional energy and its detrimental effects on climate change, the problem of energy production and consumption has acquired the negative connotation of being a global "environmental bad”. At the same time, many important positive aspects of energy use, which are essential to underpinning so-called “global goods”, such as economic development, social justice and equitable inclusion in modernization process, were crowded out by the focus on the negative environmental impacts of conventional approaches to energy.

These two perspectives have often divided the North and the South, reflecting upon their conflicting priorities in the energy sector. From the United Nations action plan known as Agenda 21 (1992)1, which has no chapter on energy, through the ninth session of the Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD-9) (2001)2 to the World Summit on Sustainable Development Rio+103 in 2002, energy remained a highly contentious issue with two competing visions. While some perceived it as a “social and economic good”, others considered energy related issues as an “environmental bad”. It was in this context that following the Millennium Declaration4 energy was not included as a specific Millennium Development Goal (MDG)5, becoming instead “the missing” MDG. Yet energy itself has never been the problem. It is the way energy is produced, packaged, transported and commercialized that determines if its impacts are negative, especially when considering global carbon emissions. And this is only part of the picture. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the Sustainable Energy for All initiative as a way to refocus the debate on the essential role energy plays in a global sustainable development agenda, while at the same time emphasizing the need to protect the environment. This also naturally provides a role for the competencies of the United Nations system, multilateral development banks, and many other partners to come together to support the achievement of results at the national level. The new global perspective on energy, as reflected in the approved SDGs6, considers energy an essential part of the integrated global sustainable development agenda. This journey was hard fought, but it will lead to significant opportunities for development and social progress around the world.

To better understand the opportunities, let us look at SDG 7 and its specifically outlined 2030 targets7:

  • Ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services
  • Increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
  • Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • Enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology, including renewable energy, energy efficiency and advanced and cleaner fossil fuel technology, and promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology
  • Expand infrastructure and upgrade technology for supplying modern and sustainable energy services for all in developing countries, in particular least developed countries, small island developing States, and landlocked developing countries, in accordance with their respective programmes of support

So why is this development agenda different and why is energy now included as a specific goal? This happens for several reasons, but primarily because:

  • It recognizes that the challenge to move to more sustainable energy systems is a global necessity and not a problem of either the North or the South.
  • It recognizes that both increased use of renewable energy and greatly improved efficiency in the use of fossil fuel-based energy are important and not mutually exclusive.
  • It reflects the fact that there will be different solutions for different countries, depending on their energy infrastructure, geographic conditions and technologies available to address energy bottlenecks.
  • It emphasizes that it is the access to the services that energy provides that is essential for development and not the energy per se.

Energy provides illumination, heating, cooling, motive power and transport, to name a few. Making these services modern and available to all people, especially for the poor, generates jobs and income opportunities, improves schools, enables hospitals to provide better quality services, supports agricultural systems that benefit from pumped water, and thus underpins living conditions, in particular for women and girls, alleviating poverty that exists when modern energy is not available, affordable or reliable.

This development agenda is different from its predecessors because the SDGs are integrated, linking progress in energy services to advances with other SDGs, which will support Governments in their cross-sectoral initiatives. This will also encourage many agencies of the United Nations system to work together in order to avoid fragmentation on the topic. This historic decision was made possible thanks to global recognition that current approaches to energy are not sustainable in economic, environmental or social terms in the face of growing global populations and the ever-increasing demand for energy services.

Take for example energy use for cooking and related gender and health aspects. For those families using inefficient cookstoves that produce indoor air pollution from burning traditional solid fuels, such as wood, charcoal or agricultural residues, access to modern energy services is a health issue. Avoiding use of polluting fuels for cooking improves livelihoods, as it reduces incidence of respiratory problems. This is also a gender issue, as indoor air pollution impacts more directly women and children, who are far more likely to be the family members near the stove and therefore suffer from smoke. There are other benefits women and children gain from using modern and cleaner energy sources for cooking. It can save them time that would otherwise be used to collect or buy solid cooking fuels, allowing children to go to school, and women to generate livelihoods and income through other productive activities.

At the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) our global Strategic Plan approved by Member States directly aligns with SDG 7. It targets sustainable energy access and improved energy efficiency, focusing on “policy and regulatory frameworks and institutional capacities to boost energy efficiency and grow low-carbon and renewable energy services at the national level.  [It  focuses] on lowering investment risks, broadening and deepening markets, and strengthening private and public sector capacities to expand investment.“This includes support for renewable energy and the market and policy transformations necessary to increase the share of renewable energy in the total energy mix. Energy efficiency is a means of promoting healthy economies and competitiveness, especially in urban areas, including in public buildings and by reviewing codes and standards for new infrastructure. Targeting access speaks directly to the need to provide tools for productive uses, improve livelihoods, and advance social inclusion, especially among marginalized populations. Although programmatic work is slightly different in each region of the world, these target areas of SDG 7 are all reflected in the UNDP Strategic Plan.

Taking a look at the Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) region, significant progress has already been achieved during the MDG era in terms of SDG 7 targets, when viewed in a global context. Access to electricity is estimated at 96 per cent across the region, whereas globally the rate is only 85 per cent. The region is in the 86th percentile in regard to access to modern cooking fuels, even further ahead of the global average of 59 per cent. In energy efficiency, the indicators have consistently increased over the past 22 years, and in 2012 the region had a rate of improvement that is 43 per cent higher than it was in 1990. The LAC region is a global leader in renewable energy with a proportion of renewables reaching nearly 28 per cent of total energy consumption, whereas the world average is at 18 per cent9. Many Caribbean countries are calling for much greater use of renewable energy due to multiple economic advantages, ecosystem protection, sector modernization and the supply resilience benefits that new technologies offer.

Despite this progress there are some points of stagnation where the SDGs agenda can help overcome hurdles.

  • Access: between 2010 and 2012, the average growth rate of households with access to electricity in the region remained at less than 1 per cent, which did not keep up with population growth. The rate of access to modern cooking fuels actually decreased to a fraction of a point. The data analysis by the Latin American Energy Organization (OLADE) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) demonstrates that although higher levels of access to electricity have been achieved, new connections to power resources remain slow in each country.10 This is because the most remote and poorest settlements are difficult and often more expensive to reach. Achieving the goal of universal, i.e. 100 per cent, access will therefore not be possible without a new approach. For example, combining rural electrification with the overall provision of educational and health services under an integrated SDGs agenda can help go the last mile.11
  • Efficiency: although the region shows consistent progress, the total rate of improvement is below 1 per cent, at only 0.82 per cent, well below the global average of 1.7 per cent. With Mexico and Brazil among the top 20 primary energy consumers globally, there is much room to scale up energy efficiency.12 This is especially true in light of the processes of urbanization across the region, which speaks once again to the importance of an integrated approach.
  • Renewables: because of the incredible level of investment since the 1960s in hydropower resources, Latin America has very clean electricity compared to the rest of the world. In fact nearly 56 per cent of their energy generation comes from renewables, including hydroelectricity. However, the share of renewable energy in total energy consumption is only 28 per cent, largely due to the lack of renewable sources in transportation. Progressive policies have helped shift electricity markets towards more renewables by focusing on improving the incentives for new power producers to secure a return on investments that use other renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar. Transportation is one of the sectors with considerable opportunities for increasing the share of renewables. If a concerted effort is made, it could have great sustainable development returns.13

Each of the above points demonstrates that energy systems do not become sustainable on their own, nor can SDG 7 targets in Latin America and the Caribbean be reached without concerted efforts. The existence of SDG 7 as part of a new and integrated global development agenda will facilitate work in these areas in many countries. Integrated national policy approaches are central to this process.

We are still on the long road towards incorporating sustainable energy, but the global debate culminating in the approval of the SDGs framework in September 2015 has reached a monumental acceptance of energy as an essential tool within a sustainable development agenda. With this new mandate and with SDG 7 firmly supported by Member States and development partners around the world, it is now possible to integrate more sustainable energy systems that improve lives, promote inclusive and resilient societies, and provide sustainable development for the future we want.



1. United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, Agenda 21  (1992). Available from

2. Official Records of the Economic and Social Council, Commission on Sustainable Development, 2001, Supplement No. 9 (E/2001/29; E/CN.17/2001/19). Available from

3. Report of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, South Africa, 26 August-4 September 2002, Resolutions Adopted by the Conference (New York, United Nations publications, A/CONF.199/20). Available from

4. Resolution A/RES/55/2. Available from

5. For more information about Millennium Development Goals see

6. United Nations General Assembly, Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, 18 September 2015, A/70/L.1. Available from

7. For more information about SDG 7 and its targets see

8. United Nations, Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Population Fund and the United Nations Office for Project Services, Draft UNDP Strategic Plan, 2014-2017, Changing with the World, New York, 3-14 June 2013, DP/2013/12, p.7.

9. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The World Bank, and the International Energy Agency, Sustainable Energy for All: Progress toward Sustainable Energy 2015, Global Tracking Framework Summary Report (Washington, DC, 2015), p.63.

10. Inter-American Development Bank and Latin American Energy Organization, last updated: December 23, 2013. Available from

11. International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The World Bank, and the International Energy Agency, Sustainable Energy for All.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.