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Leaving no one behind when it comes to energy access

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Climate change solutions go hand in hand with the sustainable development of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Renewable energy offers the prospect of safe affordable power to over a billion people currently off the electricity grid.

Great strides have been made in the last two decades to increase global access to electricity, with nearly two billion more people connected today than in 1990. However,1.1 billion people, mostly in rural areas, still lack access while another one billion have unreliable supply.

Historically, developed countries have been responsible for the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions via energy production, while developing countries are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. In developing countries, energy access is not just an issue of climate, but of health. Health clinics without electricity struggle to refrigerate much needed medicines and exposure to smoke from wood-fired cook stoves cause 4.3 million premature deaths per year. Unless we scale-up efforts, 1 billion people will still be without electricity in 2030, and 2.4 billion people will be without clean cooking facilities.

Amidst all these grim realities the UN SE4ALL 2018 global forum, Leaving No One Behind”, is taking place in Lisbon, Portugal from 2-3 May 2018. This is an important opportunity to accelerate universal energy access while improving the well-being of people in developing countries and meeting Paris Agreement commitments. Developing countries represent the “last mile”, where significant populations still lack electricity. So, what would help us to reach the the last mile while meeting emissions targets?

Political will coupled with solutions

By reducing the world’s reliance on fossil fuels through renewable energy technologies, energy efficiency and access to renewable energy in the developing world, we can avoid runaway climate change.

Developing countries in Asia are making significant progress. Many countries in the region are well on track to reach universal energy access by 2030, while India is on course to reach that goal by the early 2020s. India’s plummeting costs for renewable energy technologies are increasingly displacing coal in power generation. Meanwhile, China announced massive cutbacks on coal mining and plans to increase wind and solar power capacity by more than 21%.

Innovative business models are emerging around the world. In Africa, companies like M-Kopa are offering unique pay-as-you-go energy services for off-grid customers, combining affordable financing with mobile payments to enable the leasing of solar home systems. Bangladesh has already provided more than 3.5 million homes with electricity through solar panels coupled to batteries. WWF is working with governments to mainstream energy access and duplicate successes around the world, and to rally the support of stakeholders – not just government, the private sector, civil society, but also UN implementing agencies and multilateral banks.

Financing for both service providers and communities

Fossil fuels are currently seen as a quick and well-financed fix for securing energy access. This leaves off-grid solutions, such as solar or mini-hydro, in the hand of few pilot initiatives and social enterprises struggling to access financial support from mainstream institutions in developing countries.

Thanks to dramatic cost reductions in recent years, renewable technologies are now the most economic option for off-grid electrification. They can be significantly cheaper than diesel-fired generation or kerosene-based conventional lighting.

We need much greater investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency to tackle climate change. The world currently subsidises fossil fuels to the tune of more than US$500 billion a year, and that number is rising. This dwarfs support for renewable energy by a factor of five.

To realise the emissions-reducing potential of renewables by 2030, global annual investment in renewable energy would need to double from current levels to reach over USD 500 billion by 2020, and would need to be further scaled up to an annual average of USD 900 billion between 2021 and 2030.

But doubling the share of renewable energy globally would save between USD $1.2 and $4.2 trillion per year thanks to avoided expenditures on climate change and air pollution. These savings are 4 to 15 times larger than the cost of deployment. In economic terms these savings would amount to between 0.9% – 3.3% of global GDP in 2030.

Ending fossil fuel subsidies, and  fiscal and import barriers

The world’s ongoing dependence on fossil fuels (coal, oil and gas) carries huge environmental, social and economic risks.

We do not adequately account for the cost of pollution on our balance sheets. By giving fossil fuels a free pass for the damage they cause to our health and the environment, we are effectively subsidising them even further: eighteen times more than we subsidise renewables, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). WWF calls on financial institutions such as the World Bank and pension funds to make lending to and investing in renewable energy projects a priority.

It’s possible to eradicate energy poverty by 2030.

Large-scale solar power projects and offshore wind parks can bring costs down and deliver large, reliable volumes of clean energy to people, helping to curb global warming. If done smartly, renewable energy projects generate much less pollution than fossil fuel, generate jobs, and greater self-reliance.

We need to reduce and prepare for current and future risks faced by vulnerable communities, and build the resiliency of people and ecosystems. 2030 is approaching quickly, and there are no excuses not to provide energy services for the most vulnerable living in the developing world. This is the time to act!

Gaurav Dahal is Senior Advisor: Global Energy Access Programme for WWF. Email: gaurav.dahal@wwfnepal.org

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