Energy access players shape up for Rio+20

As the bulging contents of a greenish paint-box continue to splatter the political canvas of the Rio+20 conference, it’s just possible to detect the contours of the debate on energy poverty. This is but one mountain that must be conquered in order to see the promised land of sustainable development.

Recent weeks have been full of preliminary skirmishes. Here’s a brief look at some of the participants:

UNCSD – informal negotiations

The energy access component demonstrates the phenomenon of 21st century international negotiations in perfect microcosm.

Having used up all of the time available, countries have not yet managed to agree the title of the energy section, let alone its content.

United States
The US arrives at the energy party through a circuitous route. Its enthusiasm for clean cookstoves has evolved into the Climate and Clean Air Coalition, a partnership of countries championing action to reduce short-lived climate pollutants – which of course include the black carbon emitted by the traditional cookstoves used in poor countries.

In tackling both climate change and global poverty, this initiative creates a much-needed defensive halo for the country which is the self-confessed public enemy to almost everything that Rio+20 stands for.

Following the initial announcement in February, the Coalition swelled with the addition of all G8 members at the recent Camp David summit. Presumably the US will roll this snowball into the Mexico G20 and then along to Rio.

Sure enough, the official report on the latest round of Rio+20 negotiations tells us that “the US…. re-introduced a paragraph on short-lived climate pollutants.”

From the perspective of energy poverty, there are two major flaws in the current proposal, despite its general acclaim. Firstly, although each successive announcement gives the impression that the initiative will reduce deaths from kitchen smoke inhalation, cookstove pollutants are not included in the focus areas of the published programme.

And secondly, the US contribution of $12 million is trivial in relation to the vision, whether targeted at cooking smoke or other short-lived pollutants.

World Bank
Last month a creative combination of civil society leaders and social entrepreneurs fired off an open letter requesting the Bank to direct $500 million to “de-risk off-grid clean energy investments.” The Bank has been heavily criticised for its preference for grid extensions, involving finance for coal-fired power stations and big hydro-projects.

The Bank has erected its defence by rushing out a press release from Lighting Africa, its flagship programme on energy poverty. The target of delivering off-grid energy services to 2.5 million people in sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2012 has already been achieved.

This carapace is as flimsy as the US effort with short-lived pollutants. The Bank’s new environment strategy for 2012-2022 published yesterday contains only cursory references to off-grid solutions with no evident shift in its position.

Another World Bank contribution to the Rio+20 debate, a 200-page report on Inclusive Green Growth: the pathway to sustainable development, is equally entrenched in its views. “Building coal powered electricity plants can be a useful short-term component of a strategy to green electricity over the long term,” it insists.

NGO Campaigners
This will antagonise a sizeable section of the NGO community which is already twitchy about losing ground to big business in partnering UN and governments on global poverty programmes.

In the energy sector, this is visible in the lopsided membership of the UN Secretary-General’s High Level Panel for his Sustainable Energy For All initiative. It’s not entirely clear what affinity exists between the dark villages of southern Africa and the likes of Statoil and Bank of America.

In February the campaign group, BiofuelWatch, published briefings in protest but without gaining real momentum. Then came the Camp David G8 initiative to mobilise $3 billion for African agriculture, entirely through the private sector.

Earlier this week, Friends of the Earth International launched a petition to the UN Secretary General to “reclaim the UN from corporate capture.”

Organisations doing real work

Last week’s annual round of Ashden Awards for “green energy champions” was a great opportunity to check out the financial models of successful projects in the international sector.

The winner of the prestigious International Gold Award based its model on good old-fashioned micro-credit backed by commercial bank finance. The citation for the Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project from Karnataka in South India refers to “affordable loans to families in the area, helping them buy renewable energy systems that improve their quality of life.”

This was a useful palliative after the annual report on the state of the voluntary carbon markets, also published last week. It referred to the growing dependence of clean cookstove projects on carbon credits.

“You could potentially see billions of dollars flowing into this space over the coming years,” said a hyperbolic Simon Bishop of the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves.

No doubt Rio+20 will remind us that nothing in pursuit of universal energy access is that simple.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK