Guest Article #9

The Americas…Looking Ahead to Rio+20

The world's leaders will reconvene in Rio in June 2012 for the 20th anniversary of the original UN Conference on Environment and Development (i.e. Earth Summit). As we look ahead to the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), the Organization of American States (OAS) recently held a Dialogue among energy and climate change experts and representatives from countries of the Americas. The moderator of that session posed the question: what can we expect out of Rio+20 and how might that impact the energy sector and the environment in the Western Hemisphere? 

Before answering that question, the expert panelists, including Deputy Assistant Robert Ichord from the US Department of State, Reid Detchon, Vice President for Energy and Climate at the United Nations Foundation, and Claudio Alatorre, Senior Climate Change Specialist from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), spent some time reviewing the current state of the energy sector of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), with a particular emphasis on progress since 1992. A general conclusion is that the LAC region has made considerable progress in key energy sector categories, including growth in energy supplies, increases in energy efficiency, improvements in energy access, all while maintaining moderate growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the sector. Panelists further explored a number of these topics and the discussions highlighted: growth in supply coupled by considerable diversification in the electricity sector – the region has one of the most diverse electricity portfolios in the world, with hydropower, natural gas, oil, coal, geothermal, and other renewables all playing an important role; countries of LAC have made tremendous progress in terms of increasing access to modern energy services over the past two decades – overall the region has an electricity coverage rate of 93.2%[1]; and over the past ten years, energy used per unit of GDP in LAC has decreased by an average of 0.3% per year[2] due to increases in energy efficiency and productivity in industry, and this has contributed to slower increases in carbon dioxide emissions.

Energy and climate change are front and center among the concerns of most LAC governments. Despite the considerable diversity in the electricity sector, fossil fuels – much of which are imported into the region – continue to play a critical role in energy; this is especially true in the transportation sector, with the exception of Brazil where ethanol is an important fuel. On the climate front, the LAC region is feeling the impacts of change in a major way: key glaciers have disappeared over the past 20 years; droughts have led to critical hydroelectricity shortages; and more frequent and stronger storms have impacted the island countries and other vulnerable territories.

Looking ahead to Rio+20, the panel and audience discussed key priorities for the region for the next two decades. It is clear that there is much work to be done and a lot of room for improvement. Participants stressed the need for further diversification in the energy sector. In particular, move aggressively to expand the use of renewables including wind, geothermal, solar, small hydro, bioenergy, ocean technologies, and other emerging technologies. They also called for expanded interconnections between countries of the region. Much like diversification of generation sources, interconnections can contribute to increased supply, greater reliability, and lower costs. Expanded interconnections can also facilitate greater uptake of intermittent renewable energy sources. Finally, they also urged a continued focus on the challenges associated with energy poverty. While these challenges are evolving in LAC – from a rural electrification to an urban poor areas (slums/favelas) challenge – it does continue to be a critical problem of equitable access and affordability.

The author wishes to thank Mark Lambrides, Chief, Energy and Climate Change Mitigation, Department of Sustainable Development, Executive Secretariat for Integral Development, Organization of American States (OAS), who contributed to this article.


[1] International Energy Agency (2011). World Energy Outlook. Access to Electricity. Retrieved March 6, 2012, from http://www.iea.org/weo/electricity.asp

[2] UNEP, Environmental  Knowledge for Change ( 2010),  Energy Intensity in Latin American and the Caribbean. Retrieved March 6, 2012, from http://www.grida.no/graphicslib/detail/energy-intensity-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean_d140)