Guest Article #7

Urgent Action on Energy Needed For Both Development and Environment

For humanity to thrive and for the planet to support it, development must be brought into harmony with environmental protection. Yet the natural desire of all people for economic and social development has often been seen as conflicting with the need to protect the natural world, on which all human life depends. Unconstrained development has frequently made that conflict real – but it need not be so.

The UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD, or Rio+20), to be held in Rio de Janeiro this June, is an important milestone on the road to reconciling those two forces. Energy is the linchpin that joins them together.

The tension between environment and development permeates the production and use of energy. The conversion of fossil fuels – first coal, then oil, then natural gas – has enabled modern societies to flourish and lift billions of people out of poverty. It has also despoiled the landscape and polluted our air and water. Now its prodigious production of carbon dioxide is changing the very climate of the Earth, with rapidly worsening consequences.

The urgency of the topics of Rio+20 could not be greater: More than a billion people still have no access to electricity – critical to development in a modern economy – even as the climate impacts of energy production are felt around the world in severe weather events that disrupt food production and drive up what for the poor is truly the cost of living.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has declared that the highest priority of his second five-year term, beginning in January, will be sustainable development – memorably defined in “Our Common Future,” the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Dr. Gro Brundtland in 1987, as “development which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

As the first step toward that end, the Secretary-General has launched a very welcome new initiative, Sustainable Energy for All, with three interlinked global objectives for 2030:

  • Ensuring universal access to modern energy services;
  • Doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and
  • Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Energy is an enabler of all three components of sustainable development – economic development, social development, and environmental protection – declared by the World Summit in 2005 to be interdependent and mutually reinforcing pillars. Indeed, none of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will be met without access to modern energy services. The importance of energy to productive activity is taken for granted in the industrialized world; it is no less true for those who are living on a dollar a day.

Energy provides not only the means of economic empowerment – through water pumps, farm equipment, and industrial machinery, for example – but also social empowerment, by enabling better health care and education and by freeing up women and children from the daily drudgery of finding and fetching fuel, hauling water, and pounding grain.

Developing countries must have the freedom to bring energy to their people in the best way they can, but that energy need not be dirty and wasteful.  Today, renewable resources, such as wind, solar, and biofuels, can provide the benefits of fossil fuels without their environmental costs and, increasingly, thanks to rapid advances, without added economic costs – particularly if combined with efficient end-use technologies. This is true in rich and poor countries alike and gives hope that energy development can skip a step, much as mobile telephony has allowed countries to skip the universal installation of land lines.

Achieving the Secretary-General's three objectives would enable all people in the world to have the benefit of modern energy services while reducing global emissions to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius – thus making urgently needed progress toward development and climate change objectives at the same time. Each of these steps is essential to the other. As Herman Daly famously observed in 1977, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the reverse.”

Rio+20 offers the world an opportunity to endorse this integrated vision of the future and commit to making it real through immediate action by a wide array of stakeholders. These stakeholders include:

  • National governments, which can contribute financial resources and change public policy to enable change directly and facilitate private investment;
  • Businesses, which can engage with governments to get the policy and investment context right and deploy new distributed energy technologies at scale;
  • Investors and international finance institutions, which can work more closely together to coordinate assistance and mitigate risk in order to encourage the flow of private investment – needed at a rate of 10-100 times the plausible level of development assistance. Public money and expertise alone will fall way short of the scale that is needed; only the private sector has the financial heft to support transformative change – coupled, of course, with the policies and incentives that governments can bring to the table; and
  • Civil society, which can find and train energy entrepreneurs, develop new business models, advocate for change, and strengthen human capacity in governments and on the ground.

At a time when political action on climate change has slowed, even as the impacts of climate change have worsened, recent conferences on climate change have focused on practical steps at the national level to reduce emissions. A global endorsement of the Secretary-General's three objectives for Sustainable Energy for All, together with concrete commitments to action by political and business leaders, can spark faster action to reduce emissions and enable growth, reinforcing the progress already made and weaving the strands of environment and development ever more tightly together.

Timothy E. Wirth is President of the United Nations Foundation and a member of the Secretary-General's High-level Group on Sustainable Energy for All.  He previously served as Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs and as a member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.