Ensuring an Energy Sustainable Development Goal delivers for poor people and the planet

In late February, discussions over the post-2015 development agenda reached a milestone. The co-Chairs of the Open Working Group (OWG), the body tasked with preparing a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposal for consideration by the UN General Assembly in September 2014, issued a "Focus Areas Document".

Ben Garside's picture
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25 March 2014

In the absence of electricity, students in Bangladesh are given charger lights so they can study at home (Photo: G.M.B. Akash/PANOS)

This document provided the first formal glimpse of what the content of the next global framework to eradicate poverty and move towards truly sustainable development. While it mentioned dozens of development issues crucial to the success of the post-2015 agenda, many areas key to delivering sustainable development over the next decades remain incomplete or absent.

IIED has been working on the Sustainable Development Goals as a member of the Independent Research Forum – an international alliance of sustainable development think tanks – and through supporting the Least Developed Countries Independent Expert Group.

IIED's energy team work with a network of partners interested in energy issues across the academic, government, civil society, and business spheres. In November the energy team produced a briefing paper on energy in the post-2015 process, which has contributed to this joint blog post. Prepared in collaboration with CAFOD and Practical Action and representing the combined voice of our three organisations, this post looks specifically at the energy for sustainable development issue in the context of the SDGs and the recent OWG Focus Area Document.

Energy is essential to all SDGs: actionable, outcome-based targets are required for success

As the co-Chairs' and other UN papers on energy and the SDGs acknowledge, energy is not a standalone issue but underpins efforts to achieve many other development goals. Because of this interconnectedness, we recommend an across-the-board approach to energy within the post-2015 framework, with specific targets rather than top-down and siloed goals unlikely to garner the multi-sectoral political support required for their achievement. Specific, actionable targets will facilitate discussions on how they can be achieved and which actors and activities, across different sectors, must be involved. 

If, however, the goals retain the sector-focused structure of the MDGs and SDG discussions thus far, we support a standalone Energy Goal based on the three targets outlined in the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative. However, more concrete indicators are needed under the three top-line targets to ensure rapid, ambitious, meaningful and measurable improvements in energy access, clean energy uptake, and progress on energy efficiency.

On access, the SE4All Global Tracking Framework's tier three indicators should be the minimum acceptable standard to qualify as having "access to modern energy services". Tier three tracks outcome-oriented factors such as quality of service, for example having electricity available for a minimum of eight hours a day.

It also holistically addresses a range of poor people's energy needs through a basic but respectable package of wider energy and cooking services. Further indicators are needed to ensure progress on interconnected development needs in the areas of health, education and so on – often referred to as "nexus" issues. 

Delivering benefits from energy requires decentralised and "bottom-up" approaches

Energy poverty and the range of energy nexus issues within post-2015 cannot be meaningfully addressed without increased support for deployment of decentralized (off-grid) energy provision. It is not feasible, affordable nor desirable to connect many rural populations to grids that are slow to deploy, prohibitively expensive, often unreliable, provide minimal long-term employment, and are mostly dependent on fossil fuels. 

High costs, low returns and perceived high risks make investment in necessary decentralised energy access in low-income markets unattractive to mainstream private investors. Given that once adopted, a target of universal energy access by 2030 will only have 15 years to achieve this task, it is crucial that the post-2015 process recognize that to be successful, any provisions on energy must foster delivery to the poorest must via a combination of public-private partnerships, social enterprise initiatives and public sector-financed aid or social support.

Collaborative financing should deploy a combination of start-up grants, risk guarantees, and capacity building to provide the necessary support to enterprises delivering on decentralised energy access – and recognise that the very poorest are often not reached by the private sector alone.

We call on the post-2015 process to acknowledge the key role of public finance and innovative public partnerships with the private sector and civil society in delivering solutions that work for the energy poor.

Private sector finance alone cannot deliver universal access: a public sector role is critical

High costs, low returns and perceived high risks make investment in decentralised energy access in low-income markets unattractive to mainstream private investors. Energy service delivery to the poorest needs to be a combination of public-private partnerships, social enterprise initiatives and public sector financed aid or social support.

A school on a boat in Natore, Bangladesh, uses solar power (Photo: G.M.B. Akash/PANOS)

Increasingly social enterprises and small and medium enterprises are employing innovative finance mechanisms, including voluntary carbon finance markets, crowdfunding and investment from angel investors. Such initiatives utilise a combination of public and private finance, and deploy a combination of start-up grants, risk guarantees, and capacity building to deliver the necessary support to enterprises.

Needed government incentives might include tax breaks, reduction of import duties, and public procurement programmes, while social protection schemes may serve an important purpose in meeting the needs of the very poorest, i.e in post-conflict situations.

Tackling the gendered dimension of energy poverty is essential

Women and girls suffer the brunt of health problems and early mortality related to dirty cooking and heating fuels, a health issue of major global significance. An approach recognising the structural nature of gender inequalities is therefore essential to promote transformative change.

Concrete indicators on bringing gender budgeting into energy planning, increasing collection and analysis of disaggregated data on energy and gender, and incorporating gender into energy governance would support the transformative approach required to end these needless deaths and illnesses.

Access to modern energy services can also play a crucial role in women's economic empowerment. The post-2015 development agenda should incentivise investments in women's access to energy services for enterprise development as well as strengthen women entrepreneurs' capacities to engage in energy value chains. 

Poverty eradication depends on environmental sustainability

Without tackling dangerous climate change, it will not be possible to eradicate poverty and ensure sustainable development.

Global energy systems are responsible for 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions and must be transformed within the lifespan of the post-2015 framework. Targets on renewable energy and energy efficiency can support the shift to low/zero emissions development but, alone, are insufficient responses to climate change.

Action to cut emissions and support poor people to adapt to existing impacts must be "mainstreamed" throughout the post-2015 framework by "climate-proofing" targets and indicators, and also by cutting fiscal incentives for the production of fossil fuels. 

Under any energy-specific goal area, targets on renewable and efficiency must incentivise adequate action by 2030. This means upping the current SE4ALL 2030 targets.

We should aim for an annual global rate of improvement in energy intensity (energy/unit GDP) of at least 4.5 per cent and for at least 45 per cent of all primary energy use and energy infrastructure to be renewable. These targets must also integrate adequate social and environmental safeguards, ensuring the poorest have energy solutions appropriate for their needs.

IIED and Practical Action feel that addressing these issues during the next round of consultations and the proceeding UN negotiations will radically improve the chances of an energy SDG delivering on its intended aims.

Ben Garside (ben.garside@iied.org) is a researcher with IIED's Sustainable Markets Group; Aaron Leopold (Aaron.Leopold@practicalaction.org.uk) a Global Energy Advocate at Practical Action, co-authored the blog.

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