UNDP’s Steiner on the climate stats that keep him up at night

As the General Assembly kicks off a high-level energy dialogue, the person charged with UN’s global development efforts talks to Al Jazeera.

United Nations Development Programme Administrator Achim Steiner says access to clean energy is instrumental to improve livelihoods and social mobility, gender equality, women’s empowerment, and people’s health [File: Michael Atwood/UNDP]

New York City, the United States – The world must use trillion-dollar coronavirus pandemic recovery and stimulus measures to ensure that countries are nudged towards a green economy, Achim Steiner, administrator of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) told Al Jazeera.

Steiner, who is co-chairing Friday’s High-level Dialogue on Energy (HLDE) at the UN, says the event is an opportunity for governments to take bold action towards universal access to clean, affordable, reliable energy and to end reliance on fossil fuels.

Friday’s meeting on energy is the first held under the auspices of the General Assembly since 1981. It also comes weeks ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) later this year, which hopes to see nations commit to ambitious 2030 emissions-reductions targets.

Steiner, who is tasked with getting the UNSDGs – the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – back on track, sat down with Al Jazeera in June at the start of his second term in the job.

Back then, the UNDP chief emphasised the need for wealthier nations that are investing hundreds of billions dollars into the green energy transition to ensure that poorer ones aren’t left literally in the coal dust.

In his conversation this week with Al Jazeera Senior Business Producer Radmilla Suleymanova, Steiner urged deep-pocketed nations to meet their financial promises to help the most vulnerable countries – which suffer the most from climate change, though they contribute the least to it – green up.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Radmilla Suleymanova: Why has it taken 40 years for UNGA to meet on energy if it’s such a pressing issue?

Achim Steiner: Well, Friday’s HLDE [high-level dialogue on energy] is an indication that more and more governments – and the private sector – are recognising the crucial importance of this issue. But that’s not to say there has not been any movement on energy in the last 40 years.

RS: What has been done, exactly?

AS: For instance, the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, launched in 2011 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, sought to mobilise action in support of energy access, energy efficiency and increasing the share of renewable energy.

But 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 [on climate mitigation] while we are not on a trajectory to achieve SDG7 [which aims to guarantee that everyone on the planet has access to clean, reliable and affordable clean energy] by 2030.

RS: What are some stats that keep you up at night?

AS: 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. And 760 million people still live without electricity, 2.6 billion continue cooking with dirty, unhealthy fuels each year, and close to 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution.

RS: So getting it right on SDG7 is at the top of the SDG-priority list?

AS: All SDGs are deeply interconnected. They were designed to move away from siloed responses to concrete problems and embrace the complexities of today’s challenges. SDG7 is about achieving universal access to clean energy, but also realising the opportunities that come with it.

A girl of Afghan descent carries dry wood to be used for cooking fuel on the outskirts of Karachi, Pakistan [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

RS: What opportunities?

AS: Well, it could create some 18 million green jobs and new livelihoods by the year 2030.

Access to clean energy is instrumental to improve livelihoods and social mobility, gender equality, women’s empowerment, and people’s health. Achieving SDG7 could rapidly expand education in regions like sub-Saharan Africa where half of second-level schools have no power. For others, renewable, clean energy will increase access to vital services like affordable broadband – the “nervous system” of tomorrow’s green economy. And finally, an accelerated energy transition offers a potential 40 percent of the emission reductions we need to meet our climate goals.

RS: So getting it right on energy access is crucial then?

AS: Yes, achieving universal clean energy access is instrumental to achieve all the SDGs.

RS: The pandemic has limited countries’ abilities to achieve sustainable development, has it not?

Yes, COVID-19 has caused a major disruption to people’s lives and livelihoods. But in a way, the pandemic has shown us what we are capable of and what is possible: how fast communities and countries can react to an imminent threat.

A local health worker carries boxes containing a COVID-19 vaccine, at Malana village in the Himalayan state of Himachal Pradesh, India [File: Adnan Abidi/Reuters]

RS: OK, so what must be done right now?

AS: Right now, we need bold actions including an equitable transition to net-zero emissions that leaves no one behind in universal access to energy. Given the chance and with proper funding, clean energy will transform lives and drive forward human development especially in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. It will also set the world on the right path to address climate change.

RS: What is one thing you hope governments and businesses walk away knowing from Friday’s dialogue?

AS: It is about how to power our economies not just now – but from 10 to 20 years from now. It’s the start of global, collective action to refocus the world’s attention on sustainable energy and accelerate the energy revolution. COP26 will sustain and increase this momentum. But more needs to be done.

RS: What’s missing?

AS: About 759 million people in the world lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion people lack access to clean fuels and technology for cooking, lighting or heating their homes. If current trends continue to 2030, 660 million people still won’t have access to electricity, and 2.4 billion won’t have access to clean cooking.

RS: OK, is there any good news?

AS: Yes. There has been a 76 percent reduction in proposed coal power plants since the 2015 Paris Agreement. The cost of renewable energy is plummeting. Remarkably, it is now cheaper to opt for solar than to build a new coal power plant in almost every country.

RS: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres during his speech to the General Assembly on Tuesday sounded pretty alarmed on energy and the climate. Do you feel the same urgency?

AS: Yes. While it is encouraging to see some of the commitments made this week, including through energy compacts and other climate-related announcements, we still have a long way to go to make COP26 a success and ensure that it marks a turning point in our collective efforts to address the climate crisis.

Cars move on a road during a day with polluted air in Beijing, China [File: Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters]

The latest UNFCCC Report on the Nationally Determined Contributions of all Parties to the Paris Agreement shows that the world is on a catastrophic pathway to 2.7 degrees [Celsius] of global warming. And the latest IPCC report shows that the window we have to steer the planet in the right direction is now narrowing.

RS: It sounds like time is of the essence!

AS: We are almost out of time to keep the world from going over 1.5 degrees Celsius. That will trigger catastrophic climate change, first hitting the world’s most vulnerable the hardest but leaving no one untouched by this emergency. It is a “code red for humanity” in the words of the UN secretary-general.

We need decisive action by all countries, especially the G20 [Group of 20 developed nations], to go the extra mile and effectively contribute to emission reductions. Developing countries need reassurance that their ambition will be met with technical and financial support, including the commitment made by rich economies to mobilise $100bn annually from public and private sources for mitigation and adaptation action by 2020.

RS: Finally, as the former executive director of United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP), what do you think is the one thing that is missing from the global conversation on sustainable energy?

AS: The COVID-19 pandemic is a clear warning. Recovery from this crisis cannot be driven by a zero-sum game of economy versus environment or health versus economy. This is a once-in-a-generation chance to set things straight and I am hopeful that this ambition will be met. Competition can be a good thing, but at this moment of the global climate crisis, we need to prioritise cooperation and “co-investment” to create a sustainable and more inclusive future for people and the planet.

Source: Al Jazeera