Sustainable energy: can a new initiative succeed where Rio+20 failed?

Rio+20 failed to deliver any significant globally binding agreements on energy. Will voluntary Sustainable Energy For All initiative commitments fare any better?

Ben Garside's picture
Insight by 
Ben Garside
25 June 2012
A pot with bubbling food sits cooking on an open fire.

Cooking over an open fire in Mozambique. This inefficient cooking method is a daily necessity for many people in developing countries. Credit: Copyright, Mike Goldwater.

Nobody expected Rio+20, the UN’s development summit, to deliver transformational commitments  — and it didn’t. Then again neither did the climate change conference in Durban in 2011 or its predecessor in Copenhagen in 2009.

And yet energy was widely discussed at Rio+20, particularly in respect to increased energy efficiency and bolstering the renewables mix. The controversial 'green growth' agenda was a convenient way to discuss big business benefiting from increased energy efficiency and thousands of jobs being created in a green energy sector. But the UN text agreed at the summit is vague on how this will be achieved — with green including "cleaner" fossil fuels such as gas, no specific targets on removing the US$400 billion a year fossil fuel subsidies, and even less talk on providing access to energy services for the 1.3 billion people who don't currently have it.

Energy for all

Step forward Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) — led by UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and endorsed by more than 50 countries — which is an initiative that aims to double the rate of improvement of energy efficiency, double the share of renewables in the global energy mix, and provide universal access to modern energy services by 2030. SE4ALL has a voluntary sign-up process that has so far received more than 100 firm commitments to action, and the public and private sectors have committed more than US$50 billion. This includes a US$4.3 billion commitment by the Brazilian government to achieve universal electricity access in Brazil by 2014.

In a Rio+20 briefing session Ban Ki-moon announced: “Achieving sustainable energy for all is not only possible, but necessary — it is the golden thread that connects development, social inclusion and environmental protection.” But SE4ALL has merely been "noted" in the UN text, so there will be no high-level UN commitment to it. Given it's a voluntary process, perhaps it's better off like that. It doesn't face pressure to make further compromises, which would happen if it were endorsed in the official text. SE4ALL was praised for pulling together commitments where Rio did not, and has been criticised for big-business capture – for instance, large-scale controversial projects, such as big hydro and biofuels, were showcased at Rio by countries attending the summit. 

But SE4ALL must deliver more than just large-scale 'greener' power — read 'business as usual' — and increased energy efficiency. It must also prioritise delivering universal access to energy, particularly access for the poorest people, who have not benefited significantly from these mega projects in the past. Large dams, for example, often displace the poor, have a negative impact on livelihoods, and still leave them without power.

The nature of the commitment is important. There is something to be said for demonstrating under one banner initiatives working to increase energy access and reduce carbon emissions across the globe. This could further catalyse interest, investment and knowledge-sharing. But initiatives coming under the SE4ALL banner must also showcase new ways of working and provide new financial commitments. Even the acclaimed Brazilian commitment, which is part of an ambitious government-led programme to electrify all of Brazil, is not new money — and it is not without its critics.

SE4ALL must also be clear on what is being delivered and to whom. The number of people who will gain access to energy is a start — notably, the EU has set a target for an additional 500 million people to gain access to electricity by 2030. But to ensure that the poor benefit, targets for access should be measured according to the development benefits they deliver rather than megawatts of power on the grid. They must also be integrated more closely with wider development planning at the national and local level.

Better finance — and more of it

Businesses and governments also need to commit new money. The (US) $50-plus billion already promised is mostly funds recycled over a number of years, not new commitments. And even if it was new money, it is nowhere near the $48 billion per year that the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates is needed to meet SE4ALL targets by 2030.

Finance also needs to be smarter. Reaching the 1.3 billion who don't have access to electricity requires millions of smaller initiatives in rural areas — and that doesn’t even account for broader energy services, such as clean cooking and productive energy for agriculture and small business. Current large-scale public and private finance mechanisms fail to direct significant funds into smaller initiatives, because of perceived risk, low rates of return on investment, and a lack of “brokers” to distribute big investor funds. Smarter finance mechanisms, including subsidies that target the poorest, backed by the public sector, are needed. A recent IIED paper on the role of the private sector in sustainable energy for all explores financing mechanisms in more detail.

We need to identify the relative roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders and move towards truly multi-stakeholder energy delivery models. Under certain market conditions, the private sector can deliver to the relatively poor, but it needs to work with government and donors to deliver to the poorest. SE4ALL is missing opportunities to engage with local civil society groups, smaller-scale private sector enterprise and the informal economy — essential stakeholders in many pro-poor energy delivery models.

Participation is key

Finally, SE4ALL and the programmes and it implements needs to be people-driven and participatory. It must not only include civil society when it suits national government planning, as inferred in the official SE4ALL presentations at Rio, but be built into the process. Civil society should be given a seat at the table equal to the likes of SE4ALL co-chair and Bank of America chairman Chad Holliday.

These priorities were discussed in-depth at a session on energy access at the Fair Ideas side event organised by IIED in Rio and are included in a civil society statement signed by 107 civil society organisations. 

Time will tell whether the voluntary approach of SE4ALL will allow the flexibility for governments and business to deliver commitments that suit them at a pace that will deliver real and meaningful sustainable development benefits. Or whether it will result in an equally dismal ability to deliver more than business as usual.