Sustainable Energy for All: Towards Rio+20

Energy powers human progress. From generating employment to creating economic competitiveness, from strengthening security to empowering women, energy is the great uniter. It cuts across all sectors and lies at the heart of all countries' core interests. Now, more than ever, the world needs to ensure that the benefits of modern energy are available to all and that energy is provided as cleanly and efficiently as possible. This is a matter of equity, first and foremost, besides being an issue of urgent practical importance, and it was the impetus for the launch, on 7 November 2011, of the new Sustainable Energy for All Initiative by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

At a time of great economic uncertainty, great inequity, high urbanization, and high youth unemployment, there was, and continues to be, an emerging consensus on the need to act cohesively on global issues such as sustainable development. We are not, however, starting from scratch. New technologies, ranging from improved photovoltaic cells and advanced metering infrastructure, to electric vehicles and Smart Grids, give us a strong foundation from which to move forward. How we capture these opportunities for wealth and job creation and education and local manufacturing will be the key to unlocking any real revolution.

The UN Responds

Three linked objectives underpin the goal of achieving Sustainable Energy for All by 2030:

• ensuring universal access to modern energy services -- access to electricity, modern fuels, and technologies for cooking, heating, and productive uses;

• doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency;

• doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

These three objectives are mutually reinforcing. Increasingly affordable renewable energy technologies are bringing modern energy services to rural communities where an extension of the conventional electric power grid would be prohibitively expensive and impractical. More efficient devices for lighting and other applications require less energy, thus reducing the amount of power needed to support them. Increased efficiency in the production and use of electricity relieve strained power grids, allowing them to stretch farther and reach more households and businesses. Finally, the alternative -- unconstrained expansion of today's conventional fossil fuel-based energy systems -- would lock in a long-term infrastructure commitment to an unsustainable emissions path for the world's climate.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has formed a High-Level Group to design an Action Agenda and to provide ongoing momentum to the goal of achieving Sustainable Energy for All. In an input to the June 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) process, he described the initiative as follows: "At Rio+20 we will ask all stakeholders to make a global commitment to achieving Sustainable Energy for All by the year 2030. Reaching this goal will require action by all countries and all sectors to shape the policy and investment decisions needed for a brighter energy future. Industrialized countries must accelerate the transition to low-emission technologies. Developing countries, many of them growing rapidly and at large scale, have the opportunity to leapfrog conventional energy options and move directly to cleaner energy alternatives that will enhance economic and social development."

The Action Agenda will establish clear actions and commitments over time that will dramatically shift current energy systems pathways on to new trajectories in order to:

• establish firm political commitment;

• create stable policy and regulatory frameworks;

• finance the transformation;

• strengthen local capacity and forge global partnerships;

• ensure accountability and transparent reporting;

• strengthen the analytical foundation;

• disseminate information.

The United Nations system is cooperating and collaborating via UN-Energy (www.un-energy.org), which is fostering new partnerships and better communication, and facilitating effective action on the ground.

A New Revolution

Addressing a transition to a radically different and inclusive energy system is a generational challenge. To this end, in a recent issue of Making It magazine, Jeremy Rifkin, economist and President of the Foundation on Economic Trends, cites numerous interacting crises as the impetus for "a new economic narrative." He finds such a narrative in the confluence of "new communication technologies" and "new energy systems." This so-called Third Industrial Revolution has become attractive from a number of perspectives. In October 2011, Christiana Figueres, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), used the term to help motivate the business community toward action on climate change. As she noted: "A low carbon economy necessitates a multifaceted paradigm shift across a broad spectrum, from individual behaviour to national policies. But let me assure you that the shift will not be a clean straight line. We are barely putting in the foundations of the new economy; we are constructing it, and all construction sites are messy."

Looking beyond the energy sector, and in the run-up to the Rio+20 conference, a consensus is growing around the fact that in a resource and carbon constrained world, a transition to a green economy is required for sustainable development. However, such a shift cannot be done at the expense of the developmental priorities of developing countries, and any definition of a green economy will need to provide diverse opportunities for both economic development and poverty alleviation.

In response to these challenges, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) launched the Green Industry initiative, which aims at accelerating the green growth of the manufacturing and related sectors. It provides the international community and national Governments with a platform for fostering the positive role of industry in achieving sustainable development. Greening industrial development is thus an integral pillar of the green economy concept, as it provides a framework for developing countries to green their industrialization process and to promote businesses that provide environmental goods and services. A holistic framing of the global energy issue is required to underpin this work.

Leapfrogging

While these issues resonate in both developed and developing economies, the impact on the Least Developed Countries is something of which we are acutely aware. A good precedent for national actions exists in countries such as Rwanda and Ethiopia, which are putting together sophisticated national plans to address sustainable energy issues for the entire economy.

For a model of transformative change that has reached every corner of the world, we can look to the mobile phone industry and the information and communication technology (ICT) sector. This precedent is now influencing the possibilities for Smart Grids even in the most remote corners of the world. In the future, Smart and Just Grids for developing countries could provide similar functionality to Smart Grids in industrialized countries, even though they are likely to follow a different pathway and timeframe. Constraints such as a lack of good governance, limited investment capital, inadequate infrastructure, and a lack of well-trained power sector personnel are stifling innovative practices that should otherwise occur organically. The massive electricity infrastructure requirements to reach universal access offer a unique opportunity to learn from the nexus between ICT and energy systems and to move forward, without necessarily repeating all previous development stages.

An Important Year

The United Nations General Assembly declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, placing energy at the heart of the multilateral process. It is an enormous opportunity to share models that work, are scalable, and can help fill gaps in existing funding or capacity. It is also a chance to ensure that the political momentum currently focused on this area is maintained. Emerging partnerships, such as Norwegian Energy+, and the UN-Energy/ Global Sustainable Electricity Partnership, offer conduits for multi-stakeholder engagement and dialogue, as well as for real action.

We must do considerably more than scratch the surface of an issue that deeply impacts all of our lives. This means commitments from many different stakeholders with ways to track progress. To begin, go to http://www.sustainableenergyforall.org, and join us!