Rio+20 wrapped up yesterday. The moniker derives from the twentieth anniversary of the Earth Summit, the 1992 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, which was held in Rio de Janeiro. This reprise was billed as “an historic opportunity to define pathways to a safer, more equitable, cleaner, greener and more prosperous world for all.” The conferees focused on two themes: “How to build a green economy to achieve sustainable development and lift people out of poverty, ... and how to improve international coordination for sustainable development." The agenda was dense, ranging from jobs to energy, sustainable cities to food security and sustainable agriculture, and water and oceans to disaster readiness. Some criticized this “all things to all people” approach. We take a more pragmatic view: “whatever works.”
Unfortunately, it does not appear that much is working. All that was agreed was that there would be more discussion in the future. Criticism of the conference was uniform. NPR panned it as “one of the biggest duds.” The New York Times captured the disappointment of CARE (a political charade), Greenpeace (a failure of epic proportions) and the Pew Environment Group (a far cry from success). Even Sha Zukang, Secretary-General of the conference, could muster little positive to say: "This is an outcome that makes nobody happy. My job was to make everyone equally unhappy,"
If the goal was another international agreement filled with platitudes that would accomplish nothing, that was not achieved. But we would like to suggest that something positive may be coming. We would like to focus on just one of the initiatives, Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL). Conducted under the auspices of the United Nations, SE4ALL has three objectives:
1. Universal access to electricity
2. Increased use of renewable energy
3. Increased energy efficiency
Over 1.3 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity for their homes and work. Electricity is enabling. Whether for studying after dark, pumping irrigation water, eliminating wood/charcoal/dung stoves, or refrigerating medicine, the benefits of electricity are immediate and life-changing. The program calls for innovation and investment, and policy choices that enhance innovation and investment.
Renewable energy is part of the program for many of the reasons raised in this country: job creation, reduction of greenhouse gas and pollutant emissions, insulation from price volatility, and increased energy security. A justification not common to the domestic debate about renewable energy is also put forth. Renewable energy can cut balance-of-payment imbalances, The program’s goal is to double the share of renewable energy in the world energy use portfolio by 2030.
“Of the three objectives of Sustainable Energy for All, improving energy efficiency has the clearest impact on saving money, improving business results, and delivering more services for consumers.” Thus efficiency improvements are the easiest point of entry for lifting more people out of energy deprivation for less money. The program’s goal is to double the current rate of efficiency improvement by 2030.
Is this all pie in the sky?
Two vantage points suggest it is not. First, the investment community very much supports the renewable energy sector. Michael Liebriech, the CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance gave an interview at Rio+20 and made the point that he’s seen $1 trillion pour into the sector globally since 2004. “My clients really don’t necessarily care about what’s happening in the negotiations. They’re concerned about what’s right in front of them. What would you rather trust, a decades-long process that hasn’t resulted in a whole lot of progress, or a trillion dollars in investment?” Diplomats and governments should listen.
Second, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon, who grew up without electricity, has explained why SE4ALL is a program worth putting forward: "Widespread energy poverty condemns billions of people to darkness, to ill health and to missed opportunities ....”
One can imagine him continuing: “I had seen first-hand the grim drudgery and grind, which had been the common lot of … generations of … farm women. I had seen the tallow candle in my own home, followed by the coal-oil lamp. I knew what it was to take care of the farm chores by the flickering, undependable light of the lantern in the mud and cold rains of the fall and the snow and icy winds of winter. … I could close my eyes and recall the innumerable scenes of the harvest and the unending punishing tasks performed by hundreds of thousands of women, growing old prematurely, dying before their time, conscious of the great gap between their lives and the lives of those whom the accident of birth or choice placed in the towns and cities.”
Except that is not the Secretary General, it is Senator Frank Norris, the champion of the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, which literally turned the lights on across much of rural America. Rural electrification was a good idea then, as millions can attest. And it is a good idea now. The trick today is how to wed the developing renewable energy sector, with the billions of dollars of investment being made, to an electrification program for 1.3 billion people. A distinction here that will make electrification easier than it was in the 1930s, is that many renewable energy sources (solar, wind, tidal) by their nature can be utilized without investment in large power distribution networks. If SE4ALL is about innovation and investment, it seems eminently achievable.