Global clean-energy 'revolution' falters ahead of Rio

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SPECIAL REPORT / A UN push to provide electricity to more than 1 billion people who live off the grid is threatened by indecision at an important global development conference this week, despite robust support from EU leaders.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, has called for a “global clean energy revolution” to provide electricity to the developing world by 2030 and he won commitments to the plan from the European Commission earlier this year.

But negotiators meeting in New York ahead of the 20th anniversary Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro appeared to fall short of agreeing commitments to provide sustainable energy in some of the world’s most impoverished regions, though the final conclusions are likely to support the concept.

“A New York agreement about that was not reached,” Environment Commissioner Janez Potočnik said in Brussels before heading to the Brazil meetings.

“It’s logical and should be supported by everybody, but we hope we will find an agreement,” he said. “It’s absolutely something which is a must for human development.”

Potočnik has pressed for an assertive EU role in winning binding ecological commitments at Rio from wary partners in developing and rich nations alike.

He told EurActiv he did not know why energy access has not had stronger support in behind-the-scenes manoeuvring to set the agenda for this week’s UN Conference on Sustainable Development.

Money problems

But one UN Development Programme official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said donor fatigue in times of economic troubles is part of the problem.

The official, who is familiar with the Rio negotiations, also said some of the Group of 77 developing countries enthusiastically support the goal but don’t want rich nations prescribing how it is to be achieved by placing environmental conditions on aid.

Olivier Consolo, who heads the CONCORD charity confederation in Brussels, says the promises being made by the EU and donors to expand energy access are hollow.

“It’s quite easy for Western countries to come and say, OK, we would like developing countries to move to more sustainable commitments,” said Consolo. “But there are no new resources, and it seems that this is the pretext the [G77] are using to block negotiations – no more resources and no more engagement.”

Ban has pressed donor nations to expand electricity access to spur economic growth while tackling health and environmental risks associated with burning wood, kerosene and charcoal for energy.

In impassioned appeals citing his own childhood in post-war South Korea without electricity, Ban has urged governments to work with the private sector to support sustainable energy investments in needy countries.

Business support

He has won important backing. The head of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, which includes 68 leading EU corporations, serves on a board advising Ban on his universal energy initiative.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs in April vowed to unleash EU money to support public and private investment in sustainable energy for needy countries, through a €50-million Energising Development initiative plus additional funding.

Before the initiative was launched, the Commission was already providing millions of euros for energy access and renewables projects in developing countries. These include the ACP-EU Energy Facility that finances cross-border energy projects in Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific nations; a two-year-old cooperation project designed to boost renewable energy in African nations; and a trust fund that has provided more than €200 million in infrastructure grants to sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet such figures pale in comparison to need. The International Energy Agency says annual investments of $48 billion are needed over the next 20 years to provide power access to those off the grid – a fraction of the $409 billion the IEA estimates was spent by world governments to subsidise fossil fuels.

CONCORD’s Consolo urged developed countries meeting in Rio to do much more – “a kind of Marshall Plan where Western countries would accept to finance renewable energy” in needy nations. But a forthcoming CONCORD study on aid shows some EU countries – including Germany and Spain – retreating on their overseas development commitments, he said.

The number of people without electricity in the world, which the UN puts at 1.5 billion, or nearly one-in-five humans, could grow as the population lurches toward 9 billion by 2050 from 7 billion today.

Off-grid parts of South Asia and Latin America contribute to pockets of grinding poverty, says the UNDP’s latest Human Development Report. But the electricity deficit is most glaring in sub-Saharan Africa, where 62% of the poorest people have no power.

Positions: 

Simon Upton, environment director at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, told EurActiv in an interview:

“If developed countries imposed a carbon price across the board, and auctioned the permits using an emissions trading scheme, the sums of money involved are very, very large and would enable climate finance to be available on much bigger scale than the case now," he said by telephone from Paris.

“In a world where there are real fiscal pressures, the case for doing has got that much stronger. How can one afford to spend money damaging the environment when you can’t even balance your budget? It’s that sort of logic."

Timeline: 
  • 20-22 June: UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro
External links: 

Business and industry

World Business Council for Sustainable Development: Access to Energy

International organisations

United Nations: Sustainable Energy for All

UN Conference on Sustainable Development: Sustainable Energy for All

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development: Inclusive green growth: For the future we want

UN Development Programme: Human Development Report 2011 [fr] [es] [de]

NGOS

LDC Watch: Statement by Dr. Arjun Karki at the Ministerial Meeting of the LDCs

European Union

European Commission: Agenda for Change

European Commission: EuropeAid Energy

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