Energy equity: can the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative make a difference?

This year sees the launch of the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative, with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon creating a high-level group to mobilize action. We support the goals of this initiative but – like other observers – we feel it requires more ambition and focus. Key priorities should be reducing poverty through access to modern energy services, and ensuring equitable access to electricity and consumption of energy resources (such as gas, oil and biomass).

Emma Wilson's picture
Insight by 
Emma Wilson
29 March 2012
Closeup of the flame of a small oil lamp.

Oil lamp (Photo: srietzke)

The Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (abbreviated to SE4ALL) has set three goals to be attained by 2030: 1) ensuring universal access to modern energy services; 2) doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and 3) doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Access to affordable modern energy services – the ‘missing’ Millennium Development Goal (MDG) – is essential for sustainable development and achieving the MDGs themselves. Electricity access underpins health, education and livelihoods. Modernising cooking fuel usage – through greater fuelwood efficiency or substitution – can improve health and reduce time spent gathering firewood, especially for children and women, allowing them to pursue education and enterprise opportunities and enjoy more leisure time.

Energy access continues to be an area of shocking global inequity. 1 in 5 people has no access to electricity, while around 40% lack the technologies to make cooking fuels clean, safe and efficient. This has a crippling effect on human wellbeing and development potential. In countries such as Malawi, the flourishing trade in traditional biomass lacks sustainable management, efficient processing and end use. Large-scale investment in biomass and biofuels, in countries such as Ghana and Liberia, raises concerns about local land-use conflict and food security. Countries such as Nigeria are locked into oil and gas export economies, often resulting in resource-related conflict and few local benefits. New oil producing countries, such as Uganda, risk making the same mistakes. Governments often invest heavily in major hydro-power dams, which can result in negative impacts on communities who often fail to benefit from the power generated.

We believe that SE4ALL can make a difference if companies, governments, civil society and academia:

  • Prioritise access to energy for the poorest: SE4ALL should focus on reducing poverty and building resilience to the impacts of climate change through improving people’s access to energy. Other objectives – such as reducing carbon emissions – should not compromise that goal. Efficient solutions are essential, and renewable energy technologies for delivering off-grid energy can be flexible and practical, while affordability is improving. However, as Practical Action argues, providing electricity for all those in energy poverty using fossil-fuel based grid-power alone would only result in a 1.6% increase in global emissions. And, as Andrew Scott of ODI notes, much is being done already on promoting energy efficiency and low-carbon technologies. These efforts should be enhanced and supported, but SE4ALL needs to demonstrate clear additionality – and we believe this should be in the area of energy access for the poorest.

  • Measure success in terms of development benefits: Access to energy is important as a goal, but it doesn’t guarantee poverty reduction or climate resilience on its own. Energy access programmes need to be integrated within the context of wider development policies, with targets focussed on development benefits – improved health, education and livelihoods – not numbers of light bulbs switched on, or efficient cook stoves distributed.

  • Support sustainable use of local resources: Local resources are critical, especially in the context of extreme poverty, where other options may be unviable. Biomass energy (derived from wood or agricultural waste) is seen as a fuel of the future in Europe, but not in some of the poorest countries, where charcoal production is often illegal. Sustainably and efficiently produced biomass energy should be central to energy access strategies in poorer countries. Similarly, despite abundant potential, solar energy is frequently undervalued. In part this is due to the relative expense of the technology (often due to a lack of available subsidies), but also to failed projects, corruption, lack of technical capacity or lobbying in favour of diesel generators. The domestic use of gas resources, including gas that is currently burned off during oil extraction, is critical for the governments of oil-producing countries. This is one option for oil companies seeking to promote local energy access to explore further.

  • Promote effective community participation in planning and decision-making: A key challenge is designing resilient local energy, food, water and waste systems with communities, and fostering democratic local stewardship over resources. As 2012 is also the International Year of Co-operatives, there is a chance to promote energy co-operatives and other models of local ownership, which often result in greater sustainability due to enhanced local buy-in. We also need to consider what conditions make co-operative models unviable in some cases (such as in conflict situations) and what the alternatives might be. Minimal levels of community involvement can still result in well-designed programmes that are welcomed by the beneficiaries. Yet the success of energy projects invariably depends on understanding local cultural preferences for products and practices, and assessing – or stimulating – local willingness to pay for energy services (with free basic tariffs for the poorest).

According to the International Energy Agency, universal access could be achieved by 2030 by increasing global investment in energy infrastructure by just 3%. The private sector is expected to fill gaps in finance and skills to meet the SE4ALL goals. Useful guidance on potential private sector involvement is provided by the Global Compact and the World Business Council on Sustainable Development.

Yet while the private sector can make a big contribution, delivering energy to the poorest will require the heavy involvement of the public sector, non-governmental organisations and social enterprises. So-called ”base of the pyramid” business models, which aim to make a profit by selling goods and services to the poor, are more likely to succeed – and are succeeding – by targeting not the poorest, but the relatively poor who can afford to pay enough to make a business investment worthwhile.

Governments should think about incentives, regulation and public-private partnerships in all the priority SE4ALL areas. Efficiency, good governance and the reform of fossil fuel subsidies are all part of the access to energy story. The private sector will need sufficient incentives to deliver all of the SE4ALL goals, especially universal access. Wealthy countries, while calling on poor countries to minimise their carbon footprint as they develop, should provide leadership by cutting down on their own energy usage. Countries importing energy resources from other countries should ensure their sourcing and consumption models do not exacerbate resource poverty in the countries where energy resources are extracted – and promote local benefit sharing.

We are thinking beyond 2012. This year definitions will be ironed out and commitments made. The real work on SE4ALL will then begin in earnest. There is an important place for evidence-based research in underpinning valid solutions and monitoring the effectiveness of interventions.

We would be delighted to get feedback from you on what you and other organisations are doing and how you think IIED and our partners could contribute to a sustainable energy future. As Ban Ki Moon would say, we need to work together on this!