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OPINION: Sustainable energy for all: glass half empty or half full?

The media, social and otherwise, are full of news about how investment and employment in renewable energy is taking off globally. News stories about innovative renewable energy technologies appear daily. The promise of low-cost renewable energy for people living in marginalised communities seems almost inevitable. But how well is the world doing in making energy systems sustainable and accessible to all? Andrew Scott, Senior Research Fellow at the Overseas Development Institute, reports.

The just published third edition of Sustainable Energy for All’s Global Tracking Framework, (GTF) provides the latest figures on progress. And it seems the world is not making the progress it signed up to.

The Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SEforALL) was launched by the UN Secretary-General in September 2011 and was quickly endorsed by governments around the world. The aim was to mobilise action in support of three objectives:

  • Universal access to modern energy services by 2030
  • Doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix
  • Doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency.

By 2014, 85.6% of the world’s population had access to electricity in the home. Between 2010 and 2014, over 300 million people gained access to electricity for the first time. However, roughly one person in seven remains excluded from the benefits that electricity can bring.

The rate of progress on electrification between 2012 and 2014, the period reviewed by the GTF, is less than a third of the rate that will be necessary to achieve universal access by 2030. Worryingly, the rate was much slower than in the previous two years.

As if progress on electrification wasn’t bad enough, progress on access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking is bleaker. In 2014, over 3 billion people lacked access to modern energy services for cooking. This lack is the cause of 4 million premature deaths a year. The rate of progress is one fifth of the rate that will be required to achieve universal access by 2030.

What about the expansion of renewable energy? IRENA has announced that a record 161 GW of renewable energy generation capacity was added in 2016. However, the GTF shows that renewable energy’s share of total final energy consumption was increasing at a rate less than one fifth of the rate needed to achieve the SEforALL target.

Less than two years into implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals we know the world is off-track to meet the targets of SDG7. However, progress is uneven and fortunately some countries are making good progress on sustainable energy. What we need is an explanation of how and why some countries are making faster progress than others. History (e.g. conflict) and geography (e.g. the renewable energy resource endowment) are clearly factors. But what else lies behind rapid progress, and what can slow-moving countries learn from this?

Achieving the energy efficiency and renewable energy objectives of SEforALL would contribute to the goals of the Paris Agreement. Analysis by IRENA shows that the rate of improvement in energy intensity (the proxy measure for energy efficiency) must double to 2.5% a year by 2030 to be consistent with a 2C scenario. This is broadly consistent with the SEforALL/SDG7 target but, as already noted, this rate is higher than the rate of improvement currently being achieved globally.

IRENA’s analysis shows that the proportion of renewables in total final energy consumption will increase marginally to 21% in 2030 under business as usual. They estimate that the current rate of increase is lower than the rate estimated in SEforALL’s GTF. Neither rate of increase could not be described as substantial, as called for by the SDG target.

Under an alternative scenario, the share of renewables could increase to 37% by 2030, close to achieving the SEforALL target to double the share of renewables. This level of expansion in renewables is judged by IRENA to be technically and economically feasible and, by 2050, it could generate net economic benefits and create more employment.

As SEforALL convenes its third Forum this week, enthusiasm for exciting innovations in energy technology and business models will be tempered by reports of limited overall progress.

Differences of view and emphasis amongst actors at the international level may make it harder to push for the faster rate of progress that is necessary for SDGs and the Paris Agreement. This is exemplified by messaging around a ‘joint’ IEA and IRENA report published last week. The IEA’s press release said that “an energy transition of exceptional scope, depth and speed” would be needed to deliver the goal of the Paris Agreement. While IRENA said “Global energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions can be reduced by 70% by 2050 and completely phased-out by 2060 with a net positive economic outlook”.

The glass half full perception is that it is not too late to avoid dangerous climate change and universal access to modern energy services can be achieved before 2030. The glass half empty perception is that it will require a herculean effort to still achieve this. Either way, a renewed push for greater ambition will be necessary to achieve sustainable energy for all by 2030.

Image credit: Asian Development Bank

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