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Energy access, development and decarbonisation

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Heliostats, large reflective mirrors directing sunlight to the PS20 solar thermal tower in Sanlucar La Mayor, Andalucia, Spain

One of my operating theories about the benefit of the UN is not that it is brilliantly efficient at creating international treaties (sorry to burst your bubble on that one) but rather the opposite – the long, slow grind of thousands of negotiators meeting regularly to hash through minutiae is the world’s biggest intercultural exchange project, creating understanding one coffee break at a time.

No less is true of WWF, whose team in Lima comes from every corner of the globe. I sat at breakfast this morning with a colleague from Nepal, with whom I share an interest in the evolution of emission offset projects (the CDM) post-2020, and we fell to talking about solar energy for rural electrification.

WWF Nepal is supporting a project that extends rural solar power sustainably, creating a revolving fund with communities to ensure maintenance and replacement over time – the Achilles heel of development aid infrastructure. These systems replace lighting from kerosene and pine bark resin, a particularly damaging energy source, as collecting it kills the sparse and slow-growing trees in the high mountains. A win-win, to coin a phrase. But when it comes to the UNFCCC, it’s a square peg in a round hole.

Rural people use very little energy and hence emit little CO2. Although benefiting those people and the natural environment, avoiding traditional lighting will scarcely make a dent in gigatonnes of carbon reduction urgently needed to avoid dangerous global warming. But to the rural people of Nepal – about a million households could benefit from such solar installations – access to modern energy is a top priority. And their representatives in the UNFCCC, despite being part of the globe-trotting middle class, have their interests in mind when bending their heads around the possibilities in the UNFCCC.

This mismatch is one of the fundamental disconnects in the UN process. Countries whose top priorities are development and adaptation to unavoidable climate change fight for air time with those who are mostly concerned about cutting (or perhaps avoiding cutting) emissions at large scale.

It has always been thus. 20 years ago when working on rural solar in Honduras, my colleagues and I wrote one of the first project proposals to the proto-CDM, the USIJI. We tried to shoehorn all the benefits we knew were evident for remote homes and rural solar entrepreneurs into the language of CO2 reductions – an uneasy fit. When the CDM got off the ground, its overseers were supposed to ensure there was good geographical coverage, including projects in less developed countries. Instead, the lion’s share went to cheap, industrial-scale projects in large emerging economies. Clearly, market and offset approaches are difficult to rhyme with what is essentially development work, which explains the overriding interest many countries have in clear commitments to public finance, and non-market approaches.

Those endeavours may never make a huge dent in the gigatonne gap, but they are of immense importance to those countries. And that is why they are part of the discussion here – not because there is a parity in the nature of the actions, but there is a parity in the importance to the countries sitting around the table. If the UN can create a greater understanding among nations for what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes then maybe we’ll see benefits well beyond efforts to cut carbon. Because although green NGOs are fond of saying that climate change is the greatest threat facing mankind, it isn’t true. It’s a lack of empathy that will truly kill us off.

Jason Anderson is the Head of European Climate and Energy Policy at WWF European Policy Office. janderson@wwf.eu. This blog originally appeared on the EPO Climate and Energy blog.

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