Energy poverty narratives to follow at Rio+20

The editorial in last week’s special feature on the Rio+20 summit in Nature described the global politics of sustainable development as “an impressive bureaucratic machine that has been set to indefinite idle.”

This analogy is somewhat unfair to the movement to tackle energy poverty which has made considerable progress, especially in the last two years. Acknowledging the failure of the Millennium Development Goals to address the issue, major donors and development agencies have shoehorned energy access into their strategies. Hundreds of commercial ventures, large and small, are jostling for position.

It’s possible that this momentum will hit a brick wall at the Rio+20 conference. The goals for the energy poor could be dragged down to the lowest common denominator of political intransigence that haunts these international gatherings.

It’s also conceivable that the vision of universal energy access will surge forward, buoyed by the UN Secretary-General’s eloquent assertion that “energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability.”

What narratives should we follow during the coming fortnight to detect which of these outcomes is more likely? Here are some suggestions:

How will energy access feature in The Future We Want outcome document?
A strong result would see a paragraph(s) dedicated to the goal of universal access to modern energy services, expressing commitment to a target date through creation of national action plans and mobilisation of necessary financial resources.

A weak result would find energy poverty issues merged into broader aspirations for global renewable energy use, or within vaguely countenanced sustainable development goals, couched in language of feeble verbs such as “note” and “recognise”.

A leaked copy of the latest draft outcome text is available on Scribd. The energy section starts on page 38. It’s a complete shambles of bracketed text (even the title) and perhaps of little value beyond curiosity.

Can energy access goals be achieved without a formal international agreement?
Anticipating international political failure, the UN is calling on national governments and everyone else attending Rio to make “voluntary commitments” to sustainable development. Ban Ki-moon’s original vision for the Sustainable Energy For All initiative may not have contemplated the absence of an international agreement but a Plan B is now in full swing.

We should expect more announcements of energy access initiatives at Rio+20 than this modest editorial feature will be able to track. The question is whether in aggregate by 2030 such independent efforts can reach the 1.3 billion people around the world without access to electricity and 2.7 billion without clean cooking facilities. Remember that the International Energy Agency (IEA) price tag was an eye-watering $48 billion per annum.

Can the barriers to private sector finance for off-grid solutions be removed?
There’s a broadly consistent message from private sector energy entrepreneurs that they have identified viable business models for the poor but that finance is a problem. They’re not talking about aid but about the reluctance of banks to release tranches of consumer (micro)credit to facilitate demand – alongside risk-shy investors unwilling to inject capital into the business ventures.

If governments (rich and poor) are determined to address energy poverty, they can intervene in the financial supply chain to get the desired result. It’s far from straightforward because of the gap in understanding between poor rural household consumers and the urban financiers who pull the strings – and also because every country is different. But compared to the contortionist ingenuity of rescuing the world’s largest banks, energy access finance should be a piece of cake.

What are the energy access priorities of international donors?
Most private sector interests concede that they will struggle to reach the very poorest households and the countries of greatest political risk. This is one of the potential roles for aid or soft loans from the donor community but its commitment is far from certain. Development banks in particular have a comfort zone with big energy grid extension projects which don’t reach rural areas. The World Bank is the key agency to watch.

What are the energy access priorities of the international NGOs?
This may seem a facetious question but these are fractious times for the NGO community which seems powerless to prevent a dismal political outcome at Rio+20.

NGO advocates of universal energy access can strengthen their case at Rio through alliances which exploit the considerable overlap of energy solutions with poverty reduction, climate change adaptation and mitigation, women’s rights, health concerns and decent work.

However, effective partnerships may be hampered by worries about the cosy relationship between the Sustainable Energy for All initiative and big international corporations (through membership of the UN high-level panel), including oil and investment banking interests.

There’s also strong opposition amongst many environmental campaign groups to any expansion of energy capacity through coal-fired power stations. Their views come up against the influential 2011 IEA study, Energy For All which argued that energy access in peripheral urban areas would have to be delivered by coal-fired grid extension if the 2030 targets are to be met.

These contrary perspectives are entirely valid. The question for Rio+20 is how to take maximum advantage of a unique opportunity to advance the interests of the energy poor. A clear NGO position on energy poverty is important because the sector has the capacity to leverage vital public support for universal access.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK