A group of international energy leaders were recently on a panel for “Sustainable Energy for All,” a major UN initiative aimed at making “sustainable energy” available for all people or the world by 2030, at the recent World Future Energy Summit (part of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week). The panel was a bit more controversial than most. And, beyond the diversity of perspectives on the panel, just following the panel there was a keynote speech by Jeffrey Sachs that essentially continued the conversation but emphasized an angle that wasn’t discussed much in the panel’s conversation.
Early on in the discussion, Adnan Z. Amin, Director General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and occasional contributor to CleanTechnica, gave us some uplifting figures regarding rapid global renewable energy growth in recent years — something I’m sure all of our CleanTechnica readers having a good sense of. (Unfortunately, I was just arriving from another panel or interview, so I didn’t jot down the exciting stats he cited.)
Following Mr Amin’s positive notes, moderator Kandeh Yumkella — Director-General of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, Special Representative for Sustainable Energy for All, and chief executive of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative — posed the following question to Achim Steiner of Germany, Executive Director of of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP): On the current track, we’re on pace for 4 degrees of warming (some leading climate scientists would emphasize that’s a low estimate, due to various climate feedbacks) — is current progress enough?
Achim Steiner contended that there’s plenty of reason to be positive. We’re not on track to stop global warming, he agreed, but things are changing very fast, fast growth is occurring. There is hope that it can speed up enough to adequately tackle the problem at hand. But the key is that we’ve got a lot of work to do in order to make that happen, he added. Meanwhile, we’ve got billions of people who don’t have grid electricity or don’t have reliable grid electricity. As these places gain this basic good, Mr Steiner emphasized that we need to find ways to make sure that electricity is coming from clean energy resources.
Here’s more from Mr Steiner (paraphrased) when prodded on the challenge of this clean energy revolution, and why it’s currently not happening hast enough:
Everything boils down to economics. Coal/oil were cheap (ignoring externalities). Additionally, people entrenched in these sectors, from their educational training and decades-long professions, have a difficult time shifting — such a large shift takes time.
However, getting back to his optimism, Mr Steiner noted that, 30 years ago, people were saying: an energy transformation in our lifetime is impossible for technological reasons; 20 years ago, an energy transformation in our lifetime was considered impossible for economic reasons; and, today, almost everyone is saying, “we can’t not do this!”
Mr Steiner thinks pretty much everyone in the UN deeply believes in the “energy for all” goal, that it really is possible, but he also believes in something else: that we cannot achieve access to energy for those who don’t have it by using the old systems, out-of-date systems. Technology today makes decentralized energy (off-grid and microgrid development) more practical than the systems on which the US and Europe were built.
Furthermore, he noted that a fundamental issue to address in the Sustainable Energy for All initiative is financing. There is too much bureaucracy, too much difficulty getting financing from investors and banks (for projects in Africa, in particular). I also heard this emphasized later in the week by a pioneering microgrid entrepreneur.
Dr Robert Ichord, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Energy Transformation in the US, also on the panel, chimed in that we need to develop innovative clean energy financing mechanisms to achieve this goal.
Adnan Z. Amin of Kenya also emphasized that we need a new way of doing things. He added, a little more specifically, that we need an investment-focused approach rather than a top-down approach, which he says simply won’t work.
In developing countries everywhere in the world, he noted that the results of a recent report show that renewable energy options are cheaper than fossil fuels. The challenge is no longer to bring their costs down, but to break down barriers that make it difficult to access financing, get project approval, and get the cheaper technology in the ground and on people’s roofs. Again, this was a focus of a lot of discussion at a panel on microgrids that I attended later in the week, but nobody seemed to have a clear idea as to how to solve the problem, just that it needed to be solved — hopefully that will soon lead to many innovative solutions and a faster rush of clean energy deployment.
Suleiman Al Herbish of Saudi Arabia, current Director-General and Chief Executive Officer of the Vienna-based OPEC Fund for International Development, came into the discussion on a positive note, stating that Saudi Arabia takes its role as a reliable source of oil for the global economy very seriously. It recently announced a renewable energy or low-carbon target of 100%. Mr Al Herbish stated that the country is aimed at the sustainability of that responsibility, as well as environmental sustainability. He added that the country doesn’t just want to acquire solar or other renewable energy from other countries, but wants to develop its own renewable energy industry (including solar energy R&D and its supply chain) — this is similar to Masdar’s cleantech goals, and it is a topic I’ll get into in more depth in a future article.
Notably, Saudi Arabia is investing about $109 billion for solar power, and wants to be 33% powered by solar by 2032. And it recently launched a 3.5MW solar power project within its borders.
However, everyone knows that Saudi Arabia is oil rich, and it wants to cash in on that oil. A bit of a heated discussion between Mr Al Herbish and Mr Amin got going when Mr Al Herbish became quite defensive over Mr Amin’s statement about clean energy being more competitive than fossil fuels everywhere in the world. And there seemed to be a bit of a history of such discussions between those two.
Jeffrey Sachs followed the Sustainable Energy for All panel with his keynote address, which I wrote a post on last week. I’ll just paraphrase that speech once more:
Dr Sachs was watching the above panel while waiting to give his speech, and when he got up to the podium, one of the first things he noted was that the early statements from Mr Amin regarding clean energy growth around the world were nice, but that the growth was far less than adequate (compared to what the world needs to avoid considerable climate change catastrophe).
He noted that we used to think about climate change as a problem of the future, a problem we won’t be subject to. But we’re already experiencing extreme natural disasters related to climate change (disasters which really shouldn’t be considered natural any more). We will continue to face these catastrophes, and our children will face them. This year alone offered a few warning signs. First, the continental US experienced its hottest year on record, breaking 362 all-time heat records and no cold records. Secondly, drought crept across over 60% of the nation, making prices soar for several staple crops in the US and globally, and costing the US billions of dollars. Thirdly, we got slammed with superstorm Sandy. Despite previous warnings, from the Earth Policy Institute that the increased sea levels and greater risk of hurricanes or other large storms resulting from global warming had made serious flooding a key risk New York City, no work was done to make NYC more prepared for such risks or more resilient to potential damage. The result? One of the richest and most advanced cities in the world faced tremendous suffering and a breakdown of its critical systems, with many people even going without power for weeks.
Here’s a (not very high quality) video of much of Dr Sachs’ speech:
All in all, the Sustainable Energy for All panel and Dr Sach’s follow-up keynote speech were very interesting. They provided a good picture of where we are today, where we are going, and how we need to get to the desired future. I hope I was able to convey the key points to you all.
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For more content from CleanTechnica’s trip to Abu Dhabi, check out our archive pages for Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week, the World Future Energy Summit, and/or the International Renewable Energy Conference.
Full Disclosure: my trip to Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week was funded by Masdar. That said, I was completely free to cover what I wanted throughout the week, and at no point did I feel under pressure to cover any specific events or Masdar in any particular way.
I'm the director of CleanTechnica, the most popular clean energy website in the world, and Planetsave, a leading green and science news site. I've been covering green news of various sorts since 2008, and I've been especially focused on solar energy, electric vehicles, bicycling, and wind energy for the past few years. You can also find my work on Scientific American, Reuters, Think Progress, GE's ecomagination site, several sites in the Important Media network, & many other places. To connect on some of your favorite social networks, go to zacharyshahan.com or click on some of the links below.