Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Rio+20 Lacking on Energy

The secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon has called energy the “’golden thread’ that connects the dots to a sustainable future”. He has called for a ‘global clean energy revolution’ in order to provide electricity to everyone by 2030, while also doubling the share of clean energy sources in the global energy mix and doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency.

These ambitious and necessary targets, part of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative, have not yet been matched by negotiators at the Rio+20 conference and the 6 paragraphs of the current negotiating text at Rio+20 regarding energy show an unacceptably low level of commitment to fixing the world’s energy woes.

1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to energy, while a billion or so more do not have a clean, reliable and secure energy supply. Despite the pressing need to bring energy access and clean energy to the world’s poorest, the current text, full of ‘recognition’ and ‘reaffirmation’, is staggeringly low on concrete commitments to actually do anything new or commit additional financial resources.

For a start, the text only notes the existence of the SE4All initiative, but does not endorse it. There is however some hope that the SE4All goals could later be adopted as part of a package of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). SDGs are a key part of the negotiations in Rio, and could see the adoption of a set of goals similar to the Millennium Development Goals, which expire in 2015.

The secretary-general has been pressing for donor nations to increase funding for energy access. However, concrete financial commitments have not been forthcoming. Donor fatigue in times of austerity and economic crises in many developed nations is a significant part of the problem.

Even if the money is handed over, there are issues with how it will be used: the G77 supports the SE4Alll initiative and its goals, but is reluctant to allow rich nations to prescribe how finance is spent through environmental conditions placed on the cash.

While some money is already on the table, the figures are in the millions: minuscule in relation to what is needed. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that annual investments of $48 billion worldwide are needed over the next 20 years to provide energy access to those off the grid.

This figure itself pales into insignificance when compared to the $409 billion that the IEA estimates governments spend annually subsidising fossil fuels. The phasing out of such subsidies is also on the agenda at Rio+20, though little encouragement can be found in the negotiating text on this issue either.

The text currently states:
“We recognize the need for further action to rationalize and phase out harmful and inefficient fossil fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption and undermine sustainable development”.
Just yesterday Venezuela and Saudi Arabia were given a ‘Fossil of the Day’ award for their attempts to derail agreement on fossil fuel subsidies, and agreement on this crucial issue is not progressing as quickly as many had hoped.

Endless recognition and reaffirmation is not going to be enough. There is no use recognising the need to phase out regressive and archaic subsidies, or the need to increase renewables, if there is no comment to act on this recognition.

The future we want is one powered by clean, reliable and secure energy. The challenge now for Brazil, now leading the negotiations, is to secure strong commitments on energy, increasing financing provision and phasing out fossil fuel subsidies.

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