Coal commitments shadow Sustainable Energy For All

As public and private sector commitments rained down on the UN initiative on Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) yesterday, a short phrase in the now-forgotten text of the Rio+20 agreement began to make its presence felt.

But first it was a day of celebration for SE4ALL marked by a high-level event to showcase progress. PR departments enjoyed the open licence to thrill, with top prize to the Global LPG Partnership whose headline implies a promise to “improve 1 billion lives,” a figure pared down to “50 million people” in the text.

More sober lists released by the UN project team include notice that the “OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID) has committed a minimum of US $1 billion to..…its work against energy poverty.” The UN briefing doesn’t mention one of the conditions published separately by OFID:

Efforts to eradicate energy poverty must be technology neutral. While renewable solutions are appropriate where economics permit, fossil fuels continue to be an important contributor to energy supply. Poor countries cannot be deprived of energy for development during the transition to a more diversified energy mix.

This argument is replicated by other oil-producing countries such as Norway and by the World Coal Association.

It’s also the view of the developing country G77 bloc which was successful in fending off European efforts to delete the vital clause “including cleaner fossil fuel technologies.” This features in the list of technologies regarded as “an appropriate energy mix to meet developmental needs.” Most environmental NGOs are extremely unhappy with this outcome.

Highlighting this tension through the example of the OPEC fund is relatively straightforward and predictable. Most of the other substantial commitments to SE4ALL are thin on detail and may take weeks to understand exactly what is being supported and how.

This is especially true of the World Bank announcement which promises to double its current $8 billion of annual financing for energy projects. The Bank does not specify how the new financing will be divided between the three SE4ALL goals for access, efficiency and renewables. Nor does it indicate whether its financing of national energy access plans will include support for fossil fuel projects.

In the run-up to Rio+20, civil society leaders and off-grid energy enterprises had requested the Bank to commit $500 billion per annum of financing for off-grid projects.

Although their topic was not prominent on the Rio+20 agenda, climate change campaigners have had a bad week. Besides the “fossil fuels for development” clause, their flagship “twitterstorm” campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies rebounded as negotiators made the wording even weaker than it already was.

Both these issues find the activists in opposition to the developing world, the very countries they believe will benefit most from their fight against runaway global warming. This will be an immensely challenging tension to overcome, certainly for as long as the rich countries sustain their plodding approach to decarbonisation.

Climate activists are also losing the argument on the more neutral ground of programmes such as Sustainable Energy For All. They have no robust answer to the work of the International Energy Agency (IEA) in its World Energy Outlook reports which have become a recognised reference tool for global energy planning.

The 2011 Outlook presents a roadmap for universal energy access which involves a mix of grid extension and off-grid developments. Its grid extension scenario includes the use of fossil fuel resources which are plentiful in many poor countries. This analysis props up the fossil fuel lobby that has had some success in Rio.

Although the IEA material is impressively coherent, there are many potential flaws and questionable assumptions. And its conclusion about grid extensions seems to be at odds with its own recent warnings that we are on the brink of losing the battle to control global warming.

The NGOs need a major study to balance the influence of these IEA conclusions. One potential opportunity passed during Rio+20 when the Stockholm Environment Institute published Energy for a Shared Development Agenda, a work which develops the IEA scenarios.

The SEI conclusions fail to address the fossil fuels issue head-on although the text generally concedes that a role for coal in grid refurbishment and extension is inevitable.

My best guess is that the climate campaigners will beat a pragmatic retreat from the coal-for-development issue, if they haven’t already done so. Estimates of the net effect on carbon dioxide emissions of achieving the universal access goal vary – none show an increase of more than 2% and some even suggest a reduction.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK