Rio+20 Aimed for “Sustainable Energy for All”

This small wind turbine was on display alongside other green tech at the athletic pavilion at Rio+20. Photo: Brian Clark Howard


The UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative aims to drive economic development, improve living conditions, and protect the planet by meeting growing energy demands with renewable, environmentally responsible sources. Will Rio+20 be someday seen as the launchpad for these accomplishments or simply another missed opportunity?

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon touted the new program at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Still in its first year, Sustainable Energy for All has already engaged governments, businesses, and other groups to assess their national energy sectors and drive strategic reforms in pursuit of three year 2030 goals:

-Universal access to modern energy services

-Doubling the share of renewable energy in use today

-Doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency

“Achieving sustainable energy for all is not only possible, but necessary. It is the golden thread that connects development, social inclusion, and environmental protection,” said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in Rio. “This initiative is already mobilizing significant action from all sectors of society. Working together, we can provide solutions that drive economic growth, expand equity and reduce the risks of climate change.”

Rio+20 attendees highlighted some of the many commitments already announced under the sweeping program. Business and investors have rallied some $50 billion to the cause so far, while governments, development banks, and other organizations have kicked in tens of billions more. More than 1 billion people stand to benefit from improved access to energy through both off-the-grid initiatives and improvements to conventional power structures.

Sharing developed world technologies with those abroad the EU’s “Energizing Development” program will give 500 million people access to sustainable energy services by 2030, and the United States has pledged some $42 billion (U.S.) in grants or loans for government regulatory programs and efforts to leverage private investments in clean energy. Developing nations from Ghana to Vietnam have launched national energy action plans under the program, and international funders include The World Bank, Bank of America, and the OPEC Fund for International Development.

Corporations are also investing in the sustainable initiative, from the tech leader Microsoft to the Italian energy giant Eni. The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and 40 other professional associations are mobilizing more than 2 million members to support sustainable energy. Even the rock band Linkin Park is spearheading a “Power the World” campaign, under the Sustainable Energy for All initiative, to fight energy poverty.

Universal Access to Modern Energy Services by 2030

It’s easy to take power for granted in the developed world but one in five people globally, some 1.3 billion in all, don’t have reliable access to electricity. Ninety-five percent of these people live in developing Asia or sub-Saharan Africa. Many suffer health problems from cooking with toxic smoke-producing fuels and a lack of modern health facilities, inadequate educational opportunities, and stunted opportunities for environmental growth.

UN officials estimate that universal access by 2030 can become a reality at a cost of less than $50 billion (U.S.) a year—and that private sector investment is key to that effort.

Such investments stand to pay economic dividends as well. As people gain access to energy they launch a wide range of educational and economic initiatives from more productive farming practices to cottage manufacturing or home-based businesses. With the revenue earned through such ventures a new group of people can become more regular consumers of goods.

Doubling the Share of Renewable Energy in Use

Renewable energy sources currently make up about 15 percent of the world’s total use. But solar, wind, water, biomass, and geothermal sources are capable of producing much more—and the Secretary-General aims to double that total by 2030.

Renewable sources can often bring life-changing power to rural peoples who live far from electrical grids and have little realistic chance of connection to mainstream sources in the near future. Solar lamps allow shopkeepers to stay open at night in Bangladesh. Micro-hydro plants that use gravity and falling water to bring electricity to mountain villages in Nepal. Biomass mini-grids turn waste, like rice husks, into sustainable sources of power across Asia.

The costs of such technologies continue to drop and developed nations, too, are boosting their capacities for power generation through industries like wind and solar. The transition to these power producers creates jobs in the design, manufacture, installation, and maintenance of these system sources on both the industrial and household levels.

Doubling the Rate of Improvement in Energy Efficiency

No matter what type of energy is being used the world will benefit by using less of it to do the same job whether that be powering an appliance, heating a building, or fueling a car. Because fossil fuels are  sure to be a dominant part of the energy mix for decades to come increasing efficiency also means stretching a limited supply farther. That is increasingly important as energy consumption fueled by rising economies like India and China may grow by one-third by 2035.

Burning fewer fossil fuels also means mitigating harmful environmental consequences. The UN estimates that, by 2030, electricity consumption in buildings and industry can be cut by 14 percent due to efficiency gains. Such a drop would eliminate the need for some 1,300 mid-sized power plants.

The shift to energy efficiency also produces green jobs in building or retrofitting green buildings, and producing more efficient refrigerators, furnaces, automobiles and other products. Saving energy makes good business sense as well because it aids the bottom line for both companies and consumers.

The Sustainable Energy for All initiative is ambitious, in fact it’s meant to be world-changing, and it will take years to learn whether the commitments made at Rio truly mark the start of a new sustainable energy era. Some officials, at least, believe there is no turning back.

“Rio+20 marked a watershed understanding the plurality of roles required – alongside governments – to craft the future we want,” said Olav Kjørven, the United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Development Policy.

Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Brian Handwerk is a freelance writer based in Amherst, New Hampshire.