It’s just over two weeks since the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development wrapped up. The commentary since the conference ended has been mixed. Mostly the outcome has been criticised for lacking ambition and not being the “great leap forward” that was seen in the original Rio conference in 1992.
It’s true that there were no big ticket outcomes for anyone to hang their hat on, though there was a lot of incremental progress on some long standing global issues and agreement about next steps in the international sustainable development agenda. If things go well over the next few years the concept of Sustainable Development Goals agreed in Rio may yield results – more about that in a moment.
One of the biggest criticisms of the conference has been the lack of ambition in the outcome document. In the lead-up to the conference many observers and national governments stated that energy poverty, a problem that afflicts more than 1.3 billion people worldwide, would be a major priority for the conference outcome. Unfortunately however the lack of ambition in other areas was also reflected in the energy text. There was no clear call for action to improve energy access and no real statement on how the international community can work together to deliver energy for all. In the outcome document itself, and in discussions on the side-lines, there was still too much focus on patchwork solutions for energy access rather than achieving the scale needed to really address energy poverty for households and provide reliable access for business, industry and social infrastructure.
So there is still a lot of work to be done. And that’s where, if addressed properly, there could be some light at the end of the tunnel. There’s two ways this can happen.
Firstly is the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative. This initiative will report later this year and will include recommendations on how to address the energy poverty challenge. It will contain important advice on how to deploy basic energy services to improve lighting and cooking in households and local communities. These solutions will be useful for addressing the challenge in the short to medium term, particularly for alleviating the severe health and other social consequences of lack of access to energy. But this report must also look further. It must look to longer term and broader solutions about providing grid-based electricity that will not only provide reliable and consistent access to households, but also to business and industry and to support stronger social infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.
And that’s the approach that’s also needed in the second mechanism to address the challenge of energy poverty. At Rio+20 it was agreed to develop a set of Sustainable Development Goals as a key component of the post 2015 development agenda. The need for energy to be included in the SDGs has been highlighted by the lack of any energy target in the Millennium Development Goals due to be achieved by 2015. This is despite energy being key to almost every target set under the MDGs.
Including energy access targets in the SDGs will be critical to mobilising global action on this issue. Such a target will support investment in energy technologies in the developing world. Following from the Rio conference, the world is now beginning to think about what the SDGs might look like. An energy access target is one essential component, but what derives from that target must also be recognition that different countries will achieve it in different ways. For some, renewable energy might be the best approach. For many countries however, coal is going to play a huge role in delivering energy access. Southern Africa, India, Pakistan and many Asian countries are already looking to utilise their significant coal resources to meet the energy access challenge. The SDGs must support that.