Monday, September 28, 2015

“Energy for All”: UN Includes Access to Energy in New Sustainable Development Goals

Credit: United Nations Sustainable Development Summit.
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On Friday, the UN adopted an ambitious set of Sustainable Development Goals. These goals replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in outlining a 15-year game plan for combating poverty worldwide. Unlike the MDGs, the new goals recognize a critical component to fighting poverty: access to energy.
The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 aims to “[e]nsure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” To achieve this goal, the U.N. has proposed five targets to pursue. First is “ensur[ing] universal access” to energy, even if the energy is not sustainable. Others include globally increasing the proportion of renewable energy generated and increasing the rate of gains in energy efficiency. Finally, the targets encourage international cooperation in sharing and developing technology and in investing and upgrading infrastructure in developing countries.
Like all the new goals, Goal 7 is remarkably ambitious, some say possibly too much so. Unfortunately, it is unclear how the U.N. intends to implement and achieve this goal. The four key characteristics for energy (affordability, reliability, sustainability, and modernity) are not clearly defined. For example, a “modern” energy source should not include nuclear energy, according to the German Development Institute. However, according to The U.N. Chronicle, coal could be considered “modern” but not “sustainable.” The Chronicle reports that “modern” would not include traditional fuels such as wood or animal dung. It notes that about 40% of the world’s population (about 2.7 billion people) use these traditional fuels, which contribute to indoor air pollution.

If one follows the Chronicle’s understanding, ensuring access to coal could support progress towards the first target but not towards the ultimate goal. Thus, the first priority is to increase access to energy and second to ensure that energy is sustainable.

But that separation of priorities may very well be unnecessary. The best long-term investments for alleviating poverty around the world will be providing access to energy that does not have volatile fuel costs or high emissions. Ideally, areas lacking access to energy can “leapfrog” over unsustainable energy sources to renewable ones.

It remains to be seen how the world will respond to the UN’s new call to action. Here in the Pacific Northwest, at least, we already know there is a lot to do to move beyond our controversial dirty energy exports to exporting clean energy, technology, and other assistance like the UN is calling for.

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