The development of the world’s energy sector will have an enormous role to play in achieving the sustainable future that tens of thousands are working to secure at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development this week in Brazil. Energy is an indispensable component of modern societies. However, the same sector can be extremely destructive, destroying local environments, depleting natural resources, causing sickness and premature death, and pumping record levels of carbon dioxide (C02) into our atmosphere, wreaking havoc on the earth’s climate.

Worldwatchers Ed Groark, Alexander Ochs and Evan Musolino with IRENA Director General Adnan Amin and Director of Knowledge Management Gauri Singh (source: Evan Musolino)

On June 17th, Worldwatch Climate and Energy director Alexander Ochs and I were joined in Rio by Adnan Amin, Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and over 20 top experts for a high-level consultation on Measuring for a Renewable Future. The discussion was a first step in Worldwatch’s development of renewable energy indicators in partnership with IRENA.

The event brought together public and private sector leaders in the field from Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe to discuss barriers to renewable energy development and deployment and the enablers that can help us to overcome them. We were excited to be joined by leading thinkers such as Michael Liebreich (Bloomberg New Energy Finance), Christine Lins (REN21), Abeeku Brew-Hammond (Ghana Energy Commission), Ari Huhtala (CDKN), Leena Srivastava (TERI), Dan Kammen (University of California, Berkely), Nebojsa Nakicenovic (IIASA), Vivien Foster (The World Bank), Sunita Narain (Center for Science and the Environment), Youba Sokona (UN Economic Commission for Africa) and many others.

Putting countries on the path to meeting their full potential for deploying renewable energy is a challenging endeavor that necessitates overcoming many myths that still exist about the technologies. Renewables are no longer the costly, fringe technologies that many still believe them to be. In many parts of the world, renewables are already cost-competitive or even a more affordable option than traditional fossil fuels. If additional costs to society that result from burning fossil fuels are taken into account, which are yet to be internalized into energy pricing, renewables quickly become an even more attractive alternative.

Participants at the event outlined a host of challenges that must be addressed. Significant barriers exist in respect to finance, cost efficiency, policy and regulation, infrastructure, knowledge management, public acceptance, and the political climate, among others. The discussion highlighted that while there are certainly many challenges facing the sector, there is also significant hope for the future if the necessary actions are identified and implemented. Governments must be extremely active in designing, implementing and monitoring policies aimed at moving these barriers.

In the context of Rio+20, the path we chart for the energy sector will be one of the leading factors in shaping the course of future development. To achieve a truly sustainable future it is clear that significant changes must be made across all sectors, yet achieving positive developments in the energy sector is one of the world’s most pressing concerns. Today, about 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas warming potential comes from C02 emissions. Additionally, 70 percent of C02 emissions result from burning fossil fuels. Because of this, the energy sector is very much on the agenda of those gathered here in Rio.

It is widely accepted that “access to affordable, modern energy services is a prerequisite for achievement of sustainable development.” This has formed the basis of the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4All), for which the Secretary General has brought together the world’s leading experts in Rio to lay the framework to achieve the 3 goals they have set; 1) Ensure universal energy access to modern energy services, 2) Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and 3) Double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Energy was further represented at Rio+20 as one of the 10 thematic areas discussed in the Sustainable Development Dialogues, taking place June 16-19. Energy Day took place on June 19th, through cooperation between UN-Energy and the Secretary-General’s High-level group on Sustainable Energy for All, when world experts explored how a more sustainable energy sector can be developed. In addition, a number of official and non-official side events hosted by IGOs, NGOs and other members of the international community provided many perspectives on the issue.

With the Rio+20 conference quickly approaching its final hours, we remain dedicated to achieving a sustainable future regardless of the conference’s official outcome. It is encouraging to see the level of dedication and commitment from the diverse network of participants in the energy sector here in Rio, whom all to continue to push for the positive changes that will shape development for generations to come.

Evan Musolino is a Climate and Energy Research Associate at the Worldwatch Institute

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