We Need Concrete Targets for Sustainable Energy

  • 2015•09•15

    Málfrídur Ómarsdóttir and Robert Lindner


    Photo: DFID / BY-NC-ND 2.0

    This article is part of UNU’s “17 Days, 17 Goals” series, featuring research and commentary in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit, 25-27 September 2015 in New York City.

    Goal #7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

    The Sustainable Development Goals represent a political consensus that all participating member states could agree on. As a result, the energy goal (#7) has three targets that clearly reflect the diverse national policy approaches and international political disputes with regard to energy production. These three targets were modelled on the three objectives of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative launched in 2011 by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

    As stated in the Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform, “energy is an essential factor for sustainable development and poverty eradication”. Yet at the final stages of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), in late 2015, about 2.8 billion people still lack access to modern energy services, and more than 1.1 billion do not even have electricity. But it is not merely a question about comfort or access to modern energy; it is also about the 4.3 million premature deaths caused indirectly by cooking indoors with unsustainable fuels.

    Although energy was not directly included in the MDGs, it is now acknowledged as a key component in sustainable development. But why is energy such an important factor?

    If we look at the world energy situation today, it is clear that advanced economies have more-or-less secure access to modern sources of energy, which boosts their continued development and growing prosperity. In developing countries, limited access to affordable and reliable energy makes increasing productivity and promoting economic growth more challenging. Development of an infrastructure that provides sustainable, reliable, and affordable access to modern energy services could not only improve the economic status of people, communities, and countries, but also significantly improve living standards.

    Since energy is now acknowledged as a key factor in sustainable development, what can we expect from the implementation of SDG #7? Perhaps if we look back to the start of the MDGs, we can get a better picture of what progress has been achieved to date, and then estimate what we can expect for the next period (assuming no new major interventions).

    According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), some 1.6 billion people — 26% of the world’s population — had no access to electricity in 2002. At that time, it was estimated that, absent major new government initiatives, 1.4 billion people (18% of the global population) would still lack electricity in 2030. We have already undercut that estimate, as just 1.1 billion (15% of the global population) are living without electricity.

    During the last decade-and-a-half, we have witnessed both advances in technology and an increase in population. Leaving aside technological developments, if the UN’s projection that the world population will reach 8.5 billion by 2030 proves correct, then that would mean about 7% of people without electricity. While that is quite a reduction, is it good enough that 600 million people around the world would still live without electricity in 2030? 

    SDG #7 is clear: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. So, what is lacking in being able to achieve the goal? To achieve sustainable energy access, the energy source will have to be sustainable. In that respect, we are talking about renewable energy sources such as geothermal, hydro, solar, and wind.

    According to the 2014 Key World Energy Statistics, and despite 15 years of the MDGs, only 21% of world electricity generation comes from the renewable energy sources. The rest is based on fossil fuels and nuclear power. The IEA projects that the share of renewable energy sources will increase to 33% by 2040; but to ensure that all people have access to sustainable and modern energy, that hardly seems enough.

    Renewable modern energy services require relatively high technological know-how, and therefore are considerably more costly than conventional energy services. This poses a challenge for developing countries — especially the high starting costs. As a result, the respective agencies often opt for the cheaper and quicker option: namely, fossil fuels.

    To develop sustainable renewable energy sources, like geothermal energy, takes time and both technological and financial investment. Therefore, to provide sustainable energy for all, full commitment and support is needed to overcome a short-term mentality.

    This is where goal 7 is seemingly lacking: a commitment to increase the share of renewable energy sources in the global energy mix. Unfortunately, the goal’s targets were diluted during the negotiation process, and the final outcome text seems to avoid clear statements on contentious issues like nuclear power or fossil fuels. In the final version, one target is to “ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services” — thus avoiding the term “sustainable” and thereby retaining the possibility of fossil fuel-based energy production. A second target call for the share to be increased “substantially”, but avoids any clear commitment on concrete targets.

    Still, a third target presents a positive development, stating that the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency should be doubled by 2030. This is not only very ambitious and measurable, but also reflects the growing recognition that energy efficiency is a pillar of sustainable energy development. This represents a paradigm shift for lifestyle choices, and shows that the development agenda is no longer only directed at developing countries, but also aims to transform developed societies.

    Overall, SDG #7 is ambitious, but some of its targets will be difficult to achieve without a push to move from non-renewable to sustainable (renewable) energy sources.


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    We Need Concrete Targets for Sustainable Energy by Málfrídur Ómarsdóttir and Robert Lindner is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.