Pressure builds on Rio+20 to target energy access for all

UN leaders, business chiefs, NGO activists and celebrities have joined forces in Rio de Janeiro in a concerted endeavour to assist 1.4 billion people around the world with no access to electricity and 2.7 billion with unsafe cooking stoves.

The message to world leaders attending the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development that gets under way on Wednesday is simple: if you can’t agree about anything else, action to end energy poverty will fundamentally advance the cause of a better world.

“This will probably make a greater difference than almost anything we collectively can do,” said UN Foundation chair and former US Senator, Timothy Wirth, in an interview last week.

This groundswell will be encouraged by the latest draft of the The Future We Want, the intended political outcome document published yesterday by the Brazilian hosts. “We commit to facilitate support for access to these services by 1.4 billion people worldwide who are currently without”, it promises.

Overruling objections by US negotiators, the Brazilians have also included reference to the importance of “mobilizing adequate financial resources.” Such language would strengthen the voice of civil society leaders and private sector energy entrepreneurs who are lobbying the World Bank to switch its loans for fossil fuel projects to those which develop “off-grid” solutions in poor rural communities.

The UN argues that pursuing a goal to provide “universal access to modern energy services” by 2030 would alleviate other global crises under the microscope in Rio, in particular the potential shortage of food in a changing climate and the absence of work for young people.

This claim received a major boost from research published earlier this month by the International Renewable Energy Agency. “Energy access through renewable energy technologies …could create almost 4 million direct jobs by 2030 in the off-grid electricity sector alone,” it says.

With a weak global economy undermining prospects for foreign aid, the energy poverty campaign knows that it must be equipped with ideas for achieving its aims through the medium of conventional market forces. It will cite From Gap to Opportunity, a report published last month by the International Finance Corporation, the private sector lending arm of the World Bank.

The report’s analysis of “business models for scaling up energy access” observes that “90 percent of (poor) people already spend so much on kerosene lamps, candles, and disposable batteries to meet their lighting needs that they could afford to purchase better options, such as solar lamps.”

The research values this misguided spending at $37 billion per annum, a sum which “represents a substantial and largely untapped market for the private sector to deliver better alternatives.”

The link between energy and hunger was highlighted by Tuesday’s launch of “Powering Agriculture”, a multi-donor initiative led by USAID to connect poor farmers with markets for smart energy technologies.

“With access to energy, we can reduce post-harvest losses of 40%-60% and make more food available in developing countries,” said Dr Kandeh Yumkella, Chair of UN-Energy.

Dr Yumkella is also co-chair of the UN’s high-level group for Sustainable Energy For All, established last year by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon. Over recent days Yumkella has added intensity to the campaign by recounting his personal story.

“We studied by candlelight,” he says of his student days in Sierra Leone. After years of subsequent studying and teaching in US universities, Yumkella returned to Sierra Leone as a government minister. Yet again, he found himself working by candlelight.

For similar reasons, women find themselves in the front line of energy poverty, faced with the ever-increasing challenge of collecting wood for primitive stoves whose smoke is an unavoidable health risk. In 2009, 1.5 million deaths from child pneumonia and adult lung disease were attributed to these stoves, more than double the number of deaths from malaria.

On Tuesday Yumkella joined forces with Michelle Bachelet and Margaret Chan, respective heads of UN Women and the World Health Organization. They published an article on the theme that “everywhere around the world, energy is a woman’s issue.”

Thursday saw a significant milestone in the task of modernizing traditional cookstoves. A Washington event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies marked China’s decision to join the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership which aims to equip 100 million households with clean stoves by 2020.

China’s move was one of the positive outcomes of Hillary Clinton’s eventful visit to Beijing last month. The Secretary of State has been a champion of action on cookstoves and was instrumental in establishing the Global Alliance in 2010.

Now that Clinton has been nominated to head the US delegation to the Rio conference, it is conceivable that “cookstove diplomacy” could play a role in unscrambling the anticipated political stalemate between US and China.

Another fan of clean cookstoves is Hollywood star, Julia Roberts, who is Ambassador of the Global Alliance. In Rio, the UN Goodwill Ambassador and international supermodel, Gisele Bundchen, will be attending events in support of the universal energy access goal. And the rock band, Linkin Park, has been encouraging fans to sign a pledge to “Power the World” in advance of the Rio conference.

At the highest level, the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has invested a significant proportion of the political capital of his office in the Sustainable Energy For All initiative. The UN General Assembly has designated the year 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.

In his pre-Rio+20 press briefing, the Secretary-General said: “sustainable energy for all is the golden thread that links development, social inclusion and environmental protection – including addressing the growing threat of climate change.”

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this article was first published in the OneWorld section of Yahoo World News

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