UN energy targets ‘would jack up global emissions 20%’

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This article is part of our special report Energising Tomorrow’s World.

SPECIAL REPORT: An ambitious but little known set of UN sustainable energy goals for 2020 aims to double global improvements in energy efficiency and renewable energy capacity, and provide universal access to modern energy services. But achieving this last target would cause a carbon emissions explosion, according to a senior UN economist.

More than one in five of the planet’s 7 billion inhabitants lack access to electricity and another 1 billion lack stable supplies, a gross inequity that the UN Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) initiative aims to end by mobilising governments, business, and civil society.

But EURACTIV understands that, while in an ideal world, only locally-sourced renewable energy would be included within the initiative, in practice less sustainable sources will be relied on wherever necessary.

According to Ulrich Hoffmann, a senior economist with the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), speaking in a personal capacity from the secretariat’s offices in Geneva, this could have “catastrophic” consequences.  

“We are far from an ideal situation and in reality if you were to hook these 1.3 billion people onto any form of energy supply – assuming current average consumption and production patterns – whatever is available in terms of energy mix, it would automatically jack up carbon emissions by no less than 20% globally,” he said.  

Hoffmann argues that the ‘rebound effect’ of increased energy supply without a corresponding decoupling from carbon sources in absolute terms, can only feed a cycle of increased production, consumption, and thus carbon emissions.

Instead he proposed a massive decline in the developed world’s carbon intensity, and redistribution of ‘development space’ – the amount of carbon emissions possible without exceeding 2 degrees Celsius of warming – to help the developing world.

If 1.3 billion were simply connected to electricity supplies, “the effect would be catastrophic,” in advancing global warming with a potential to make life on large parts of the planet uninhabitable, he said.

But Hoffmann’s perspective faces opposition from governments, private sector companies, NGOs and participants in the UN SE4ALL initiative.

Philosophical criticisms

Catherine ray, a spokeswoman for the Development Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, said that Hoffmann’s position was “interesting but quite philosophical”, and that projects sponsored by the EU would focus on providing locally-sourced renewable energy.

“You have to be pragmatic and everyone can agree that it is better for African countries to tap their renewable energy sources rather than going all through fossil fuel, which is more polluting,” she told EURACTIV.

Half of the 1.3 billion people lacking access to modern energy services are African, and the results, especially for women, can be life threatening on a scale unimaginable in the planet’s rich north.

“If we are going to invest in Africa, maybe it is better to try and invest in these [renewable] sectors rather than leaving them being energy dependent?” Ray said.

Detail in the development

On 16 April, the EU launched an ‘Energising Development’ programme, as part of SE4ALL. Speaking alongside the UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon, EU president José Manuel Barroso committed the EU to help provide access to sustainable energy services to 500 million people by 2030.

More than 50 countries have signed up to SE4ALL, and the initiative claims to have catalysed $50 billion of private sector investment – more when public funds are counted – although the sums mobilised will also be directed towards the initiative’s other two 2030 targets.

The initiative only has four members of staff working full-time on the project, deliberately so the UN claims, so as to keep it lean and efficient.  

“It is quite an achievement that in one year, the movement has been so fast because you have had two summits, a lot of money committed and a lot of projects launched under this umbrella,” Ray said. 

The UN’s Sustainable Energy For All initiative grew up at the same time as the EU’s Agenda For Change (SE4ALL) initiative in the Autumn of 2011, and the two projects quickly allied their forces. The UN’s secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon put the SE4ALL project under the control of the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) chief, Kandeh Yumkella.  

The SE4ALL 2030 goals are to double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and the share of renewable energy in the global mix, and to provide universal energy access to 1.3 billion people.

The UN declared 2012 as the Year of Sustainable Energy For All and under this rubric, birthing public sector initiatives such as the EU’s Energising Development and private sector projects such as Enel’s Enabling Electricity alike.

  • 2030: Deadline for UN SE4ALL goals to be met

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