Energy poverty news for Rio+20: June 11

There’s more evidence of a looming challenge to the legitimacy of the UN’s Sustainable Energy For All (SEFA) initiative. A critical document described as a “Civil Society Statement” has appeared on two websites – the Gears of Change youth media project and Friends of the Earth UK (which describes it as “hot off the presses”).

Neither website indicates who originated the document nor which civil society organisations endorse it. For the moment, it’s hard to surmise whether the sentiments expressed will be swiftly extinguished by the cacophony of Rio+20 or whether SEFA will be dragged into the broader Friends of the Earth International campaign to “reclaim the UN from corporate capture.”

My instinct is that there’s some trouble ahead around governance for the Secretary-General’s favourite project. This so-called Civil Society Statement is not an anti-capitalist rant but a measured case “that corporate interests from the fossil fuel, finance and energy industries have been invited by the UN Secretary General to his High-Level Group, while most national governments and civil society voices have not.”

It cites the World Commission on Dams and the European Commission’s Forest Law Enforcement and Governance Treaty as examples of more inclusive structures in global initiatives on sustainable development.

Some of the wording is identical to a civil society statement published in the Outreach Magazine of the Stakeholder Forum a couple of weeks ago. That statement was relatively modest in its concern that SEFA should upgrade its ambition for energy access and support for financing.

The issue of corporate influence was not addressed and the language was conciliatory. Signatories included Friends of the Earth.

For those who enjoy higher octane critiques, BiofuelWatch has updated its February briefing for the Rio+20 conference. Few punches are pulled and the paper concludes that “profit-driven corporate practices and investments –including by those involved in the SEFA initiative, are in fact largely responsible for the energy poverty, human rights abuses, environmental damage…” etc

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Calls on the World Bank to channel $500 million of funding to support off-grid energy access projects are being sustained by two of the signatories of recent open letters on the topic.

The June issue of the online journal of International Rivers repeats the appeal under the heading “Billion Reasons to Invest in Distributed Clean Energy Access.” And Stewart Craine, Founder and Director of Barefoot Power, mentioned the figure in a presentation at the Asia Clean Energy Forum which concluded in Manila on Friday.

Craine broadened the appeal to the multilateral development banks, an obvious hint to the Asian Development Bank which hosts this annual event.

The ADB didn’t exactly rise to the bait. Citing the usual excuse, the Bank’s Principal Energy Specialist, Jim Liston, observed that projects have to be of a certain size to warrant consideration, with anything below $50 million being unfeasible.

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Should we think of the need for energy access to end in the home? To put it another way, can poverty reduction be achieved unless energy is also available for livelihoods?

Most livelihoods in rural economies of the poorest countries depend on farming. Tomorrow sees the launch of Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development. This is a multi-donor initiative led by USAID which will develop clean energy solutions to intensify the agriculture sector.

This news should resonate with the UK development agency, Practical Action, which has pioneered the concept of “Total Energy Access”. Its flagship report, Poor People’s Energy Outlook 2012, stressed the importance of “energy for earning a living” with agriculture the prime need.

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this article was first published by OneWorld UK

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