Global Policy Forum

Can Energy For All be a Reality by 2030?


UNGA Resolution 65/151 passed at the end of 2010 declared 2012 as the international year of Sustainable Energy for All. This global initiative led by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon aims to ensure universal access to energy, double the rate of energy efficiency improvements and double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. These targets are meant to answer some of the key challenges posed by poverty, inequality, economic growth and environmental risks, but it is unclear who will fund the campaign budget, which will rise from $9bn a year to $40-50bn. More importantly, critics have questioned whether increase in energy consumption is what we should be lobbying for at the outset of serious climate change concerns.  

By Paige McClanahan

September 26, 2012

Imagine a world, 18 years from now, in which every single household on the planet is connected to a reliable energy supply that comes from a sustainable source.

It is a fiercely ambitious goal, but a feasible one – according to the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon. Universal energy access is just one of the aims of his Sustainable Energy for All initiative, which got a big push at a recent meeting on the sidelines of the UN general assembly.

"Sustainable energy for all is the answer to some of the key challenges of our time – poverty, inequality, economic growth, and environmental risks," Ban told UN delegates on Monday, adding that promoting sustainable energy can "help us avoid the catastrophe of climate change".

Boosting economic growth in the developing world would seem to be a key focus of the sustainable energy campaign, given that a stable electricity supply – which many poor countries lack – is fundamental to a strong private sector.

"We have data from the World Bank indicating that in Africa, 2-3% of GDP is wiped out every year because of an unreliable energy supply or lack of energy supply," said Kandeh Yumkella, head of the UN industrial development organisation and the newly appointed UN special representative for sustainable energy for all.

"In Mali and Burkina Faso, electricity costs between 30 and 50 cents per kilowatt hour, compared with four or seven cents elsewhere," he said. "At those kinds of prices, they cannot be competitive, they cannot create jobs, they will not be profitable."

UN officials say the campaign aims to pump between $40bn and $50bn a year into sustainable energy, up from the current figure of roughly $9bn. But governments are reluctant to put up that kind of extra money, Yumkella said, so the UN is looking to the private sector to plug the gap.

Philips, the multinational electronics company, has announced it is to install 100 "light centres" across rural Africa to bring electricity to communities in the evenings. The French oil and gas firm Total has promised to provide five million low-income people with solar lamps and portable solar kits by 2015. Dozens of other companies have made similar commitments.

But, as concerns about global climate change grow ever more pressing, should the international community really be pushing for broader energy consumption?

Definitely, said Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister andlead author of the 1987 report that first gave the world the term "sustainable development".

"There is no way to think that we will have … sufficient support across the world to take action on climate … [if] that means that people in poor countries and in poor parts of countries will not have access to electricity," she said. "Electricity is very basic, in so many ways. Sustainable energy for all is one crucial element in the solution."

And universal energy access is just one of the three goals of the UN initiative. The campaign also aims to double the global rate of energy efficiency improvements, and double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Companies including Nike, Unilever, and Microsoft have already made commitments on those fronts.

The last two goals are aimed at the developed world, said Yumkella, adding that rich countries "have to transform how they produce and use energy" even as poorer countries increase their electricity consumption.

Yumkella believes the international community should embrace these concerted steps toward promoting sustainable energy.

"We are not waiting for the grand deal of climate change," he said. "Right now – today – we can take action in the energy sector."



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