Within the opening minute of this highly charged, highly professional, wholly American-inspired press conference to re-launch the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) initiative, I was reminded of an old photo buried somewhere in my travel archives.
It was taken far from the tourist trail, on a nondescript highway in Saskatchewan, approaching a small town rejoicing in the unusual name of Biggar. The road sign in the photo reads:
New York is big but this is Biggar
In combative mood, the UN Foundation president, Timothy Wirth, didn’t quite use this modified version of the phrase but he certainly meant it:
The UN is big but public-private partnerships are bigger
This is not an original gambit. When you’re rebuffed by a club whose membership you covet (the Rio+20 agreement), you announce that your own club is bigger and better.
I’ve watched a lot of UN meetings. And it’s very clear that we’re seeing today a different approach to the issues of world, by the world. Instead of assuming that the UN not only sets norms but is going to be able to manage to all those norms and effectively regulate the world, the UN sets norms but it is a group of public-private actors that are increasingly carrying out the intent of the world. These new public-private partnerships are the dominant theme and the dominant outcome of what’s happening here in Rio. My opinion is that the document is much much less important than this new set of developments.
Phew! There’s much wisdom, and indeed courage, in what Mr Wirth is saying. But the questions come thick and fast.
Do African governments feel comfortable with the idea of a diminished UN, in which they have a greater voice than in the “dominant” alternative? What evidence is there that public-private infrastructure developments reach the poor?
The former US Senator adopted the clear language of scale. Amongst “these magic public-private partnerships,” Wirth told us, is “the very large one, the Secretary-General’s initiative on Sustainable Energy For All…..People will walk away from Rio and say what happened in Rio? I believe that the single most important thing that has transpired here is the fact that the energy initiative is mobilized.”
This was high-level SE4ALL at full throttle, the co-chairs of Ban Ki-moon’s controversial Group unleashing the contents of their media packs in a relentless wave of government partnerships, action plans, commitments, case studies and achievements.
The normally tireless head of UN-Energy, Dr Kandeh Yumkella, looked exhausted by the time he finished. But this was bread and butter slapstick for Chad Holliday, chair of the Bank of America, who couldn’t wait to join the fun:
We believe that the Sustainable Energy For All initiative is the greatest public-private partnership of all times.
Setting aside the hyperbole, everything we heard was true. The SE4ALL initiative has enjoyed great leadership, including that of Timothy Wirth himself over many years. It has quickly inspired an impressive following backed up with real promises, and has the potential for deep public support.
I was even persuaded for a moment to accept Dr Yumkella’s argument that the two goals addressing global energy efficiency and the use of renewables belong in the same box as that to end energy poverty:
We want to double the rate of energy efficiency improvement per year….Why is that important? It’s not the poor people who are generating most of the greenhouse gases. It’s you and I. Our SUVs, our wonderful cars, our air-conditioning, and the refrigerator you use in your house. Many of us need to change the way we use energy so we don’t pollute the world and make the poor suffer.
Never was a truer word spoken. But that Orwellian road sign reared its awkward head again in my mind:
The UN Climate Convention is big but SE4ALL is bigger
We have a UN legal framework in place for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Can the poorest countries be expected to believe that the reluctance of North Americans to comply with UNFCCC science will be trumped by a voluntary UN energy initiative? Are the SE4ALL goals for renewables and efficiency much more ambitious than national targets already in place?
It is this intersection with the poorest countries, and with the poorest communities of some middle income countries, where doubts spring to mind on the prospects for the goal of universal access to modern energy services.
Can SE4ALL succeed without the wholehearted support of NGO activists and implementing agencies? Can the flurry of innovative models for off-grid solutions for “bottom of the pyramid” urban and rural communities condense into a self-driven market?
So many questions and so little time to ask them.
Correction. Mr Wirth has risen from his seat. “Our time has expired,” he announces, marching his colleagues out of the room, en route to a High-level side event on Sustainable Energy for All.
It continues as I write. I hope they have allowed time for questions.
this article was first published by OneWorld UK