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Confronting energy poverty on behalf of the world’s poorest

Confronting energy poverty on behalf of the world’s poorest thumbnail

“Saving our planet, lifting people out of poverty and advancing economic growth” is an ambitious goal by any measure but that is what South Korean diplomat, Ban Ki-moon, has set out to do for the next five years of his term as United Nations Secretary General with the help of governments, the private sector, and civil society.  (Photo: DG Yumkella and UN SG Ban Ki-moon in Abu Dhabi)

Outlining his “five global imperatives – five generational opportunities and two enablers” that will shape his global agenda and build the world of the future; a world where economic prosperity, freedom, justice and peace reign, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has challenged the world community to forge a common partnership. “Together, no challenge is too large.  Together, nothing is impossible,” he said.

To confront the problems associated with poverty, hunger, youths, women’s empowerment and inequalities, SG Ki-moon has made sustainable energy his first generational global imperative. His other imperatives include preventing conflicts and disasters, working for women and young people, human rights abuses and development setbacks, and building a safer and more secure world.

In an effort to forge a consensus around a post-2015 sustainable development framework and accelerating the progress made so far on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) as well as addressing climate change, SG Ki-moon has called on the world community to find solutions to common problems that no nation alone can solve. “We must connect the dots between climate change, water scarcity, energy shortages, global health, food security, and women’s empowerment” he said.

Launching his Sustainable Energy for All Initiative – an initiative that seeks to confront the problems associated with Energy poverty that stifles development recently at the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, SG Ki-moon underscored the importance of energy to sustainable development noting that there can be no development without energy. Lack of adequate, accessible and affordable energy does not promote economic growth and poses a challenge in satisfying basic human needs.

“Energy is central to everything we do – from powering our economies to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, from combating climate change to underpinning global security. It is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity and preserving the environment” he said as he delivered his keynote remarks.

To solicit support around the world for such an ambitious vision in the hopes that lives will be transformed and new opportunities are afforded to the poorest to escape the worst impacts of poverty, SG Ban Ki-moon appointed a high-level group charged with coordinating the efforts of governments, finance, business and civil society towards achieving the goal of “Sustainable Energy for All” by 2030. The multi stakeholder group, co-chaired by UNIDO’s Yumkella and Charles Holliday of Bank of America has already released an action plan to meet the three interrelated goals of universal access to modern energy services, doubling energy efficiency, and increasing the share of renewable energy in the world’s energy supply.

By choosing Sierra Leonean born UNIDO Director General, Kandeh Yumkella, to co-lead this group, SG Ban Ki-moon not only chose someone with whom they share a passion for achieving sustainable economic growth and prosperity but one with a stellar reputation in the international development arena.  Accepting the mandate to lead UNIDO in 2005, Dr. Yumkella, a widely sought after speaker, stressed the need to link the energy issue the world is confronting today with economic modernization and transformation of poor economies.

“We cannot close the poverty divide or the digital divide without a reliable source of cheap energy in developing countries. When two billion people have no power, and they happen to be the poorest people in the world, then there is a linkage between poverty and energy. I ask you that when looking at energy, let us consider energy security for the poor,” he stressed to the 174 member states as he delivered his inaugural speech.

At the helm of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) in Vienna for the last six years, Dr. Yumkella has transformed the moribund agency into the pre-eminent organization that uses “its resources and expertise to support developing countries and economies in transition in their efforts to achieve sustainable and economically viable future through resource efficient low carbon growth which in turn helps to create jobs, use clean technologies and making sure the world’s industries do not harm the environment.”

By prioritizing poverty reduction through Productive Activities, Trade-Capacity Building and Environment and Energy, UNIDO addresses vigorously the Millennium Development Goals of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, promote gender equality and empowering women, ensuring environmental protection and develop a global partnership for development. Under his leadership, UNIDO not only increased the value of its services to member states by 250% but also delivered close to $170 million at the end of 2011 – a new record in the 44 year history of the organization.

Both gentlemen also share similar experiences. Growing up as a young kid during the Korean War, 67 year old Ban Ki-moon experienced firsthand the problems associated with lack of energy access. He lived and studied in the dark. In the tiny village of Kychum – Kambia District in Northern Sierra Leone, 52 old Yumkella also lived through the same dark conditions. At N’jala University where he earned his undergraduate degree, he studied by candlelight and recalled walking miles to go fetch water because there was no electricity to pump water directly to their hostels.

As the same condition affects billions around the globe today with reports estimating that one in five people are without access to energy, with many as three billion still using traditional forms of energy such as wood, charcoal, animal wastes to cook meals or to heat their homes, both men will only hope that their mission to revert such deplorable conditions will be achievable by 2030. Until then, the harmful smoke and fumes emitted from polluting and inefficient cooking, lighting and heating devices will continue to kill the estimated two million people dying prematurely each year; deaths occurring primarily between women and children and is the cause of a wide range of chronic diseases.

In Africa alone, 80 percent of the continent’s population use traditional biomass with only 42 percent having access to electricity. The situation is even worse for Sub-Saharan Africa where only 31 percent have access to energy; the lowest rate of any region in the world as reports suggest. Energy advocates are convinced that social and economic development is only possible when access to modern and clean energy services is made available to the billions of people who continue to suffer from energy poverty.

While world leaders have signaled their ambitions to work for renewable energy and improved energy access, one issue that this panel has to confront is making sure that the policies and politics associated with achieving such ambitious targets do not fit the status quo. As a matter of fact, the status quo must change – no politics as usual!

At a recent meeting in Abu Dhabi, the Energy for All high-level panel proposed a series of action items that will require participation from both the national and international levels to meet the complimentary targets of expanding energy access, promoting efficiency standards and policies and strengthening investment in renewables.

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon will officially launch the action agenda when the international community meet in Rio de Janeiro in June this year for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development; 20 years since the UN Conference on Environment and Development was held in 1992. At this same conference, energy access advocates will look forward to leaders to secure renewed political commitment for sustainable development while also addressing the new and emerging challenges, the “global imperatives” of the 21st century.

While Mr. SG Ban Ki-moon has done an admirable job leading and bringing the issue of climate change and low carbon development at the top of the global development agenda and for leading many bold global initiatives, Dr. Yumkella is widely admired and respected for his eloquence and the astute leadership he has provided in galvanizing the global community to rally around SG Ban Ki-moon’s ‘Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.’

“Energy is critical for human progress and for the developing world, energy poverty is devastating. Now more than ever, the world needs to ensure that the benefits of modern energy are available to all and that energy is provided as cleanly and efficiently as possible. This is a matter of equity, first and foremost, but it is also an issue of urgent practical importance. Ensuring sustainable energy for all is essential for meeting two of the most pressing challenges of our time – reducing poverty and minimizing the risks of climate change” he said as he prepares to address African leaders at the 2012 African Union Summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Sustainable Energy for All.

Knowing that lack of energy access impedes development and ending extreme poverty is a challenge, we can only wish these two tireless advocates and others well in their global mission of achieving Sustainable Energy Access – an ambitious but achievable goal that requires strong political will from governments, private sector and civil society.

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One Comment on "Confronting energy poverty on behalf of the world’s poorest"

  1. Neil Jeffery, CEO Renewable World on Tue, 31st Jan 2012 12:51 pm 

    Ban Ki Moon’s launch of the International Year for Sustainable Energy for All provides scope for optimism; however, there is still a huge amount of work to be done. Previous UN “International Year” initiatives have not always fulfilled their potential (the International Year of Biodiversity in 2010 a notable example). 2012, however, could represent the beginning of an exciting period of green growth and poverty mitigation across the developing world, if sufficient support is provided. At Renewable World, we have witnessed first-hand the enormously transformational impact of delivering small-scale affordable renewable energy services for off-grid communities in areas of market failure. The programmes are testament to the fact that clean tech solutions to poverty can contribute to market development in some of most challenging environments as well as support social and economic development.

    Significant investment is needed to provide capital to kick-start these small‐scale financially sustainable energy businesses, and thus stimulate market activity in areas populated by poor consumers. An estimated $48bn is necessary each year to secure universal access to modern energy by 2030. At just 3% of total energy investment estimated for 2030, this is not just necessary, but eminently feasible. Government and private sector support for the International Year for Sustainable Energy for All therefore has the potential to catalyse growth in a green economy in the developing world and open a window of opportunity to make progress in the fight against poverty. This should form a critical part of the discussion at the Rio+20 Summit this year.


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