Prepare for voluntary commitments to energy access

As ministers and heads of state descend on Rio de Janeiro for the commencement of the formal UN conference tomorrow, we’re going to be deluged with proud announcements of “voluntary commitments.”

It’s not just governments, but corporations, municipal authorities and civil society that have been exhorted by the UN Secretary-General to do their bit for sustainable development.

Each day the latest commitments scoreboard is announced to the media. Depending on your threshold of scepticism, this phenomenon represents an outburst of international goodwill towards people and planet or the UN’s Plan B, triggered by the failure of preparatory negotiations to line up much of value in the formal outcome agreement.

Undaunted, Bob Orr, the UN spokesman at today’s press conference on the Sustainable Energy For All initiative, plunged into unfamiliar language for this conference: “what we are talking about today is going to be a major success story of Rio.”

I take that as code for impending announcements of heavy duty voluntary commitments in support of Sustainable Energy For All. Those relating to the goal of universal access will be greatly welcomed. Unlike most basic human development sectors, energy poverty has never been captured within an international framework of commitment such as a UN Convention or the Millennium Development Goals.

Some folk will question whether the results of these voluntary commitments will add up to the 1.4 billion who lack electricity and 2.7 billion dependent on traditional cooking facilities. Remember that the International Energy Agency price tag to achieve universal access to modern energy by 2030 was an eye-watering $48 billion per annum.

Here’s a brief note of the biggest energy poverty programmes already announced, so that we can begin to get a feel of the numbers:

Energising Development Initiative – the European Union announced in April that it will facilitate access to sustainable energy for an additional 500 million people in developing countries by 2030

Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves: the flagship facilitating programme aims to equip 100 million households by 2020 (say 500 million people)

Lighting Africa – a joint IFC and World Bank program helping to develop commercial off-grid lighting markets in Sub-Saharan Africa. Target 250 million people by 2030.

Lighting India – a new sister programme to Lighting Africa aims to bring modern lighting to “at least” 2 million people by 2015

There are countless others. Most of the big bilateral donors and international development NGOs will point out that they have been working on energy access and kitchen stove schemes for years and now hope to gear up their efforts.

I’m not going to attempt any addition or extrapolation exercises. Project beneficiary numbers are a notoriously poor guide of whether poor people’s lives have actually improved.

Numbers have to be fed to donor institutions like bamboo to pandas. They know no other way to satisfy their need (for accountability to taxpayers or other sources of funds).

The bottom line is that this is more about finding the elusive combination of a padlock than attaining absolute numbers. Determination to search for the optimum combination of all the “public-private” pieces of the supply chain in each separate environment of energy poverty is the test of a voluntary commitment.

It’s also about honesty that even the best market solutions are unlikely to reach the poorest of the poor. The most gung-ho “bottom of the pyramid” entrepreneurs will admit this if you catch quiet moments with them away from their set piece conference performances.

Unfortunately, the poorest of the poor below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day are still with us to the tune of 1.2 billion people, uncomfortably similar to the number with no access to electricity.

I sense that their fate is not yet captured by the innovative progress of the Energy For All initiative, nor its bulging briefcase of voluntary commitments.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK