COP21 and access to energy for all


Climate, Energy & Sustainability

Picture of Andris Piebalgs
Andris Piebalgs

Senior Fellow at the Florence School of Regulation, former European commissioner for development and energy, and Trustee of Friends of Europe

The COP21 meeting in Paris earlier this month represented a major step forward in the fight against climate change. Countries from across the global have agreed to start cutting their greenhouse gas emissions to limit the rise in global temperatures to well below 2°C. True, the agreement does not include a mandatory scheme or a compliance enforcement mechanism. It’s also true that, if all the pledges for cutting greenhouse gases from 186 countries would be carried out, we would fall short of the 2°C goal. The main success of the Paris summit is, however, in setting up a system that requires countries to regularly take stock of their progress and to raise their targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

The outcome of the COP21 is also a game changer for the energy sector. Every government now needs to recognise that the fossil fuel era is coming to an end. The question now is how rapid the decline in the use of fossil fuel resources will be and how its potential costs will be distributed.

From a global population of 7.3 billion people, at least 1.3 billion have no access to energy. That’s why special emphasis has been put in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. The situation in Africa poses a particularly challenging obstacle to this effort as current trends reveal that the number of people with no access to energy is likely to increase. African governments have recognized the need to prioritize the development of the energy sector. Unfortunately they face tough choices. Senegal’s minister of energy once told me that “the most expensive is the energy that you don’t have”.

In the face of increasing demand, a lot of countries have moved towards coal-based energy generation. If the trend continues, many developing countries will be using coal for the next 30 to 40 years. We need to find a way to reunite the fight for sustainability with the fight against poverty. This isn’t an ideological issue. African countries themselves have an ambition to substantially increase the part played by renewable energy in their energy mix. Unfortunately the progress has been slow.

COP21 brought pledges of $10bn for advancing the use of renewable energy in developing countries. Germany has announced an investment of €3bn alongside France’s €2bn. There are existing American and European Commission initiatives but more financing will clearly be needed. I hope that from 2020, the promised €100bn from developed to developing countries will be invested in providing access to sustainable energy. I am very hopeful about the multibillion dollar ”Breakthrough Energy Coalition” launched by the private sector. Bill Gates, who is one of the leaders of this alliance, is head of the Gates Foundation which is working actively to save lives the globe.

There is a clear need to invest more in clean energy research and to bring clean energy solutions out of the labs. For oil, it took 40 years to move from 5% to 25% of the world energy supply. For renewables, this transition must be managed on over a shorter timescale. Taking a serious effort towards enhancing energy efficiency will help a great deal.

Technologies have moved fast. Globally, electricity from new offshore wind installations is cheaper than coal and is competitive with gas. The costs of photovoltaic installations have decreased substantially. That means that there are immediately available solutions. They just need to be used. Globally, investments in renewable energy are growing. Unfortunately this is not the case in all parts of the world. Because of the urgent need to tackle climate change, we can’t wait. Partnerships are needed. One example of a successful partnership has been established in the Pacific between the regions countries, the EU and New Zealand. Jean-Louis Borloo from the “Fondation Energies pour l’Afrique” is working to create a similar partnership for Africa.

It is important to recognise that to ensure access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy for all is an enormous challenge. But in bringing about an energy revolution, we shouldn’t forget the people who have no access to electricity. Their needs should be top of our agenda.

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