Energy gains burned by burgeoning population

The world has made significant progress towards energy efficiency, but that has been wiped out by more and more people.

A man walks through solar panels at a solar power plant under construction in Aksu
A man walks through solar panels at a power plant under construction in China's Xinjiang province [Reuters]

London, United Kingdom – The world has made important progress towards improving energy efficiency and using more renewable sources of power over the last two decades, but the gains have barely been enough to keep up with population growth and surging energy demand, a new UN-backed report suggests.

In the last 10 years, 1.7 billion people around the world gained access to electricity, but the world’s population grew by 1.6 billion over that same period, nearly wiping out the gains.

Similarly, rising energy demand effectively eliminated half the energy efficiency savings and 70 percent of the gains from growth in renewable energy over the past decade.

“Even to stand still, we have to run extremely fast. That’s the challenge,” said Vivien Foster, a sustainable energy leader at the World Bank, and one of the lead authors of the Global Tracking Framework report, released on Friday.

Based on household survey data from 180 countries around the world, the report examines progress over the last 20 years towards three sustainable energy goals the United Nations secretary general has set for 2030: universal access to electricity and fuel sources other than firewood or dung for cooking; a doubling of renewable energy as a share of global energy use; and a doubling of the annual rate of improvement in energy efficiency.

“If China had not gone aggressively after this energy agenda, it would have consumed twice as much energy over the last 20 years as it did.

– Vivien Foster, World Bank

About 70 countries around the world have signed up to try to meet the “Sustainable Energy for All” goals.

The report – the first to track progress on such goals – aims to drive better policy on sustainable energy, as well as to support the inclusion of energy issues in new sustainable development goals, which are expected to be adopted next year to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals.

1.2 billion without electricity

Access to clean and sustainable energy remains an enormous problem around the world, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Globally 1.2 billion people have no access to electricity and 2.8 billion cook with firewood and other “solid fuels” that can cause health problems and that help fuel widespread deforestation.

The problem is worst in rural areas, but experts are particularly concerned about cities, where virtually all of the expected world population increase – from some 7 billion now to 9 billion by 2050 – is expected to occur, Foster said.

From 1990 to 2010, the percentage of people with access to electricity rose from 76 percent to 83 percent worldwide, she said, but in urban areas the increase was just 1 percent, albeit from an already high level of 94 percent.

Today, about 20 percent of the world’s electricity comes from renewable sources, particularly hydropower and biofuels. Brazil, with ample supplies of both, has become one of the world’s renewable energy leaders, alongside countries like Norway and Sweden.

But China has also achieved huge gains in energy efficiency, with what Foster called “by far the fastest rate of improvement” of any country in the world, cutting its use of energy on a “truly massive” scale.

“If China had not gone aggressively after this energy agenda, it would have consumed twice as much energy over the last 20 years as it did,” she said.

Every region in the world, with the exception of the Middle East, has seen improvements in energy efficiency over the last 20 years, the report noted.

But such changes are occurring too slowly, in too few countries, the report suggests. To bring about more rapid progress on energy access and sustainability – and, as a result, climate change – efforts need to focus on changing policy in what the report terms “high impact countries,” those with the biggest populations and worst problems.

India a focus

India – home to 25 percent of the world’s population without access to electricity and the highest number of people using firewood or other similar fuels to cook – heads that list. But countries such as the United States and Russia also need big gains in energy efficiency and even China has much more to do, the report said.

Windmills northeast of Lisbon, Portugal [AFP]

Currently, the world is on track to fall at least a third short of its goal to double the share of renewable energy used by 2030, the report noted, and improvements in energy efficiency are just half of what is needed.

Changing that will require focusing on what Foster called the “fast-moving” countries to try to work out what is working there. Policy “is the next frontier,” she said.

Christoph Frei, secretary general of the World Energy Council, said another key will be persuading political leaders that there is more political risk in lagging behind on sustainable energy than pushing ahead.

Cutting fossil fuel subsidies may be politically risky, he and others said, but forcing populations to endure blackouts, health problems from pollution or soaring fuel prices can also have risks.

The report faced criticism at its launch on Friday in London for including fuel-wood as a “renewable” source of energy, despite evidence of widespread deforestation and unsustainable use of forests around the world.

Foster said the authors of the report – including researchers from organisations such as the International Energy Agency and Practical Action, a nongovernment organisation – may try to track deforestation in order to better define whether fuel-wood is “sustainable” for updates on the report.

Based on data from the International Energy Agency, the United Nations, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation, the report will be updated every two years, Foster said.

This article first appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation news service

Source: Reuters