Global Energy Portfolio Shares by Energy Resource (Source: Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030)

On September 20, in remarks at the United Nations (UN) Private Sector Forum in New York, UN Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro announced the launch of a High-Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All, a body whose aim is to catalyze actions at all levels to achieve three goals by 2030: ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Migiro, speaking on behalf of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, emphasized the critical role that energy must play in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. The High-Level Group, consisting of leaders from business, government, and civil society, will work to design a sustainable energy action agenda in time for the Rio+20 conference in 2012, a year which the UN General Assembly has designated the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All. The Sustainable Energy for All Initiative’s goals were first articulated in a summary report of the Secretary General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC) last year titled Energy for a Sustainable Future.

The Sustainable Energy for All Initiative comes at a critical moment in global development. According to the International Energy Agency, more than one in five people around the world, the majority of which live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, do not have access to electricity. Many use inefficient stoves and dirty fuels to cook their food, create light, and heat their homes. Providing sustainable energy services for 7 billion people will require a dramatic change in the way the world uses energy, with increased energy efficiency and renewable energy generation two essential parts of the solution. As the Deputy Secretary-General noted, “We need to provide access to energy for all. But, we also need to minimize the risks of dangerous climate change by ensuring that universal energy is clean and sustainable. In short, we need a clean energy revolution – now.”

Achieving sustainable energy for all by 2030 may seem daunting. In 2009, the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that given anticipated population growth, universal energy access would mean a 40 percent increase in the world’s primary energy demand above 2007 levels. Under its 450 scenario, which targets climate stabilization at 450 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide–equivalent, the IEA projects that renewable energy would account for 37 percent of global electricity generation by 2030, up from 18 percent in 2007, and renewable energy and energy efficiency together would account for 76 percent of annual emission abatements between 2007 and 2030. Yet even this transition may not be ambitious enough. Under this scenario, by the year 2030, global emissions would be 25 percent higher than 1990 levels and there is only a 50 percent chance that global warming will remain under 2 degrees Celsius, the level that experts warn would cause disastrous impacts on the climate.

Worldwatch research has identified a number of actions that can bring the world to an even lower-carbon energy economy by 2030 without sacrificing economic growth. Worldwatch report Renewable Revolution: Low-Carbon Energy by 2030 argues that through the increased use of renewable energy and energy efficiency, countries can pursue both development and emission reductions. In Renewable Revolution, authors Janet Sawin and William Moomaw find that a combined use of renewable energy and energy efficiency could more than offset projected growth in energy demand. The productive use of waste heat, distributed generation technologies and the resulting reduced transmission and distribution losses, green buildings and efficient lighting systems, and more electrified heat and transportation sectors, all contribute to bringing about a more sustainable energy future. In Worldwatch’s “Transformational” 2030 scenario, global primary energy demand remains roughly the same, but the amount of energy services provided to people significantly increases. The share of renewable energy rises to 50 percent in 2030, and then continues upward. More importantly from a climate perspective, global carbon emissions drop to 34 percent below 1990 levels.

A rapid scale-up of renewable technology is attainable partly due to the modular nature of the manufacturing process. Unlike coal or nuclear plants, which require lengthy on-site construction times, renewable generating systems such as wind turbines and solar panels can be built and connected to the grid in increments. In some cases transitions can happen quickly, even on a national scale. As Kandeh K. Yumkella, Chair of the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate remarked in April 2010 at the Energy for a Sustainable Future report launch, countries including Brazil, China, and Vietnam have presented rapid expansion of energy access, while China, Denmark, Japan and Sweden, as well as California in the United States have achieved dramatic improvements in energy efficiency.

Such rapid transformation is not easy to achieve though: as Worldwatch report Low-Carbon Energy: A Roadmap points out, a dramatic shift in the mix of energy sources will require restructuring of the energy industry through all-encompassing technological, economic, and policy innovations. Putting a price on carbon, removing institutional and regulatory barriers, and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies are essential to ensuring a sustainable energy future and to achieving the three goals urged by the United Nations.

Instead of wasting $500 billion each year in estimated cost of delay, we should take actions today that will transition us to a green and sustainable economy. Worldwatch’s Energy Roadmap for the Caribbean is a showcase of our work on the ground to help small-island states to achieve this transformation over the course of a few decades. By collaborating with local stakeholders in each country, the roadmap devises practical ways in which countries like Haiti, Jamaica and the Dominican Republic can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels imports and their consequent economic and environmental costs, while at the same time increasing their energy security.

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Caribbean, Climate Change, developing countries, emissions reductions, energy efficiency, energy security, low-carbon, renewable energy