New York City, the United States – The COVID-19 pandemic has set back decades of progress on poverty and development – including the drive to eliminate energy poverty for good by the end of the decade.
On Friday, world leaders gathered for the United Nations General Assembly are expected to recommit to pledges to end energy poverty – and take those efforts a step further by hashing out a road map to get it done.
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“The COVID-19 pandemic is a clear warning,” Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), told Al Jazeera. “Recovery from this crisis cannot be driven by a zero-sum game of economy versus environment or health versus economy.”
Some 138 energy compacts have already been signed by various UN member states in the lead-up to Friday’s UN High-level Dialogue on Energy (HLDE), where activists and academics will rub shoulders with world and business leaders.
The gathering will see nations commit to accelerating previous pledges to advance clean energy for all by 2030 and achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. Member states will be recharging efforts to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the targets set out by the global 2015 Paris Agreement on climate-change mitigation.
Back in 2015, 193 UN member states voluntarily pledged to fulfil 17 development goals known as the SDGs by 2030. The ambitious agenda promises to “leave no one behind” by ending hunger and poverty, and ensuring quality education, clean water and sanitation for all.
“What makes this HLDE so critical is the fact that it is taking place at the very moment we need it most. We are not on track to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement while we are not on a trajectory to achieve SDG7 [the goal on energy] by 2030,” Steiner warned.
Progress, but not enough
Sustainable Development Goal 7, or SDG7, aims to guarantee that everyone on the planet has access to clean, reliable and affordable clean energy by 2030.
And while energy access has grown in recent years, it is not growing for everyone.
Some 760 million people worldwide still have no electricity and 2.6 billion people – or one in three people globally – have no access to clean cooking fuels, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).
The coronavirus pandemic has seen the status quo deteriorate even further by reversing decades of development gains and pushing an additional 97 million more people worldwide back into poverty. Some 118 million more people faced hunger last year compared to 2019, according to the UN.
In his address to the General Assembly on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres underscored the urgency for action ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) later this year, warning that the world is “seemingly light years away from reaching our targets”.
If the trajectory continues the way it’s going now, there will still be 650 million people with no electricity by 2030, the UN warns.
“A minimum level of energy access – a simple light for example – is just not enough,” Damilola Ogunbiyi, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for Sustainable Energy for All, told Al Jazeera. “People need enough electricity to live healthy and fulfilled lives.”
‘Does that turn into clean energy financing abroad?’
Three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions stem from energy production. It is the leading cause of the climate crisis, which hits the world’s poorest and most vulnerable the hardest, according to the UN.
While the challenges to bringing clean, affordable energy to all are formidable, there has been some positive momentum recently, the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center’s Deputy Director Reed Blakemore told Al Jazeera.
For example, during his UN address on Wednesday, President Xi Jinping of China said that Beijing would no longer fund the construction of new coal-fired power projects overseas.
China had previously poured money into coal projects in developing countries like Indonesia and Bangladesh.
The question, said Blakemore, is, “Does that turn into clean energy financing abroad?”
Back in 2009, developed nations promised to mobilise $100bn per year by 2020 for developing countries to help achieve clean and renewable energy goals. And while that amount climbed from $52.4bn in 2013 to $78.3bn in 2018, according to a recent report (PDF) from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD, a group of major economies), there is still a significant shortfall.
Total climate finance mobilised by rich nations for developing economies in 2019 was just under $80bn, which means developed countries will need to fill a $20bn gap, the report said.
While the previous US administration of President Donald Trump dealt global climate goals a setback by pulling out of the Paris climate accord and slashing funding for the UN and its agencies, current US President Joe Biden this week underscored Washington’s renewed commitment to tackling climate change in his first UN address since taking office.
“The Biden administration is clearly making an effort to lay down a marker to the US’s recommitment to global climate goals,” Blakemore said.
The US Senate last month approved a $1 trillion infrastructure bill – the largest in decades – to build better roads, bridges, public transport and broadband internet during the next five years.
But the clock is ticking, UN’s chief Guterres warned this week.
“Promises, after all, are worthless if people do not see results in their daily lives,” he said. “We must get serious. And we must act fast.”
Africa and Asia: Still left in the dark
Three-quarters of people globally who lack access to electricity – some 580 million people – live in sub-Saharan Africa. And that number is believed to have increased during the pandemic, as governments divert financial resources to the public health response, according to the IEA.
That deficit can be lethal.
Only a quarter of primary healthcare facilities in Africa have electricity, says the UN.
And some 2.6 billion people globally lack access to clean cooking oil, relying instead on solid biomass, kerosene or coal, according to the IEA.
“Not having enough electricity or clean cooking options can mean the difference between life and death. Leaving billions of people in energy poverty is simply unacceptable,” UN Special Representative Ogunbiyi told Al Jazeera.
Household air pollution, mostly from cooking smoke, is linked to around 2.5 million premature deaths annually, with women and children disproportionately affected.
And while the number of people without clean cooking oil has been declining gradually over the past decade – particularly in India and China – the pandemic threatens to reverse this modest progress.
And clean energy is also key to lifting people out of poverty, says Blakemore.
“We cannot forget that we need to set up these countries to power their entire economies with clean energy,” he said. “If we think of it in a purely limited sense, then we will not set these parts of the world up with sweeping economic growth that is powered by clean, sustainable energy.”