Adopt integrated action

Adopt integrated action

On April 22, 2016 (Earth Day), world leaders gathered for a high-level signing ceremony at the United Nations for the planet’s ultimate New Year’s resolution – the 2015 Paris Agreement. The future success of the agreement, however, hinges on the level of “ambition” contained in the voluntary national pledges – Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) – to curb climate change which will be submitted by all parties.

Like all New Year’s resolutions, it is not the well-intended verbiage about climate mitigation, but the measurable national/global shift towards sustainable energy (low and zero carbon) that matters. The negotiators are set to gather in Bonn from May 16-26, 2016, for the first session of the Ad Hoc Working Group on the Paris Agreement. Yet another new meeting group will convene, but the real litmus test for the UN-led sustainable development process will be verified by the move towards clean, cost-effective energy for those who happen to both energy-poor and climate-vulnerable.

It is this more neglected aspect of the energy-climate change nexus that is directly connected to poverty eradication and that has not received as much global traction.

The World Energy Outlook 2015 demonstrates that 1.2 billion people are without access to electricity and more than 2.7 billion people rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking, which causes harmful indoor/household pollution. This heavy reliance on solid fuels also results in emissions of short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). Integrated action on energy access and SLCPs offers multiple sustainable development benefits.

But currently, there are 2 separate global processes – silos – on energy and climate. The lack of a globally integrated process on sustainable energy and climate change poses thorny implementation and tracking challenges for the UN’s ambitious “Transforming our World: The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.” This agenda’s pledge “that no one will be left behind” includes 2 separate sustainable development goals (SDGs) – SDG 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”; and SDG 13: “Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.”

Sustainable energy objectives are considered within the “Sustainable Energy for All” (SE4All) launched by the UN in 2010. SE4All currently has 3 linked objectives:
Providing universal access to modern energy services; Doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. But, if sustainable energy is a common factor in achieving both SDGs, then why is there no globally integrated process that can ensure efficient financing, implementation and tracking of relevant sustainable energy actions across both SDGs?

As it turns out, the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement avoids any references to “energy”; and the solo, cursory reference to “energy” is found in Article 16 which mentions the International Atomic Energy Agency. The solitary reference to “sustainable energy” and “renewable energy” is contained in the preambular section of the Paris Climate Conference outcome document but not in the actual agreement:
“Acknowledging the need to promote universal access to sustainable energy in developing countries, in particular in Africa, through the enhanced deployment of renewable energy.”

Sobering findings
There is no escaping the fact that progress on sustainable energy objectives is vital for both SDGs. The Global Tracking Framework (GTF 2015) conducted by the World Bank and the International Energy Agency (IEA) has issued sobering findings on this front:

• Across all dimensions of sustainable energy for all – whether access, efficiency, or renewables – the rate of progress during the 2010-12 tracking period falls substantially short of the rate that would be needed to ensure that the 3 objectives are met by 2030. 

• There have been notable advances in electrification – driven primarily by India – but progress in Africa remains far too slow.

• By contrast, access to clean cooking continues to fall behind population growth leading to negligible progress.

• Traditional methods to measure energy access significantly underestimate the scale of the challenge.

• The growth of renewable energy final consumption continued to accelerate in recent years, but to achieve the SE4All objective, the rate of progress will need to increase over 50%.

• Today’s investment flows of $400 billion a year would need to triple to achieve the necessary pace of progress.

Having two separate SDGs makes little implementation sense for the majority of developing countries where integrated approaches on sustainable energy, climate change and poverty eradication is needed. For instance, in India, according to the IEA, “a population similar to that of the European Union and the United States combined lives without clean cooking facilities – 840 million people in India, by far the largest national population of any country in the world.”

The IEA reports that the heavy reliance on solid biomass (mainly fuelwood) used in traditional stoves in India is the major cause of indoor air pollution and premature deaths. India’s submission of its INDCs to the UN does not include an aggregate emissions reduction target. Instead, it has pledged to reduce its “emissions intensity” or its emissions per unit of economic output. The country’s push towards increasing access to sustainable, renewable energy is the nationally identified strategy to reduce emissions intensity (address climate change) and simultaneously provide clean energy to millions.

Expecting a clean energy “breakthrough” without actually breaking through existing UN “silos” on sustainable energy and climate change is a wasteful and ineffective fallacy, especially when viewed from the perspective of millions who die prematurely at the toxic and tragic intersection of energy poverty and climate vulnerability.

(Cherian is the author of “Energy and Global Climate Change: Bridging the Sustainable Development Divide”)

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