Energy for all realistic target, says UN envoy

According to UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), energy is at the centre of every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. Be it for jobs, security, climate change, food production or increasing income, access to energy for all is essential.

However, according to Rachel Kyte, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General and CEO of Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), delivery of SDG Goal Seven—which is to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all—is still behind almost three years later. Despite this delay, she says this ambitious target is achievable but players must act swiftly if other opportunities are to be unlocked.

Kyte spoke exclusively to The New Times‘ Athan Tashobya at the margins of the Sustainable Energy Forum for East Africa held in Kigali recently.

Below are excerpts;

Sustainable energy for all; how practical is this goal?

There are two things here; first of all it is important that each country agrees on what these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are. It has never happened before.

For the fist time, energy is at the centre of SDGs. But is is also critical that if we are to mitigate climate change, we should start addressing impacts that are being felt by the poorest people and communities because they are most the vulnerable. Because Africa is already struggling with impacts of climate change.

Second thing is, there is no reason why we can’t meet this goal. This is not a crazy goal. This is a technologically possible, financially affordable goal. We can get everyone access to enough electricity to meet their productive needs—that is power reliable refrigerator, television and running a small business at home.

All that is possible to do all it requires is concerted effort, political and longterm and medium term view. The goal has been set for 2030, countries should be planning to achieve it as soon as possible.

Because as soon as you achieve the goal for sustainable enery, then you lay the ground work for effective health systems, education systems. Without energy, it is difficult to imagine how many jobs will be lost. So, this is a realistic goal, we just have to put our minds to it.

In developing countries, finances and technology tend to be a huge hindrance to such inclusive projects. How can the world work to make sure that finances and technology is equally availed for  developing countries to deliver on this affordable energy target?

First of all, it is important to think about the energy system that the country needs. It definitely needs centralised grid power for industries, for big cities, for big use.

But again, there is more than 600 million Africans who do not have access to any form of electricity, out of 1.2 billion or more people worldwide without electricity. Most of those are living in rural areas or right at the edges of cities.

They are going to be more cheaply and effectively reached by complimenting the grid with off grid solutions such as solar systems.

The way we think about energy systems going forward is different from how we thought in the past. All the decentralised systems, because of the fast affordable technology, are reasonably quick to install and maintain and, of course, with the fast growing innovation in Africa already around mobile phones and more pay as you go systems—it is possible to imagine you can affordably close the energy access gap.

But to look at the system as a whole, countries have to invest more in the energy systems.  Most African countries invest less than 2 per cent of their GDP in electricity. And it is no longer the case that African countries can’t afford to invest a little bit more of their income into the power system because power is so fundamental for everything else if you want to achieve.

Secondly, if you think about the amounts of money that we are talking about, to close the energy gap you need about $45 billion a year for the next seventeen years.

But if you compare that to the amount of money that is not collected through weak taxation systems (the amount of money that leaves the continent either because it is corruptly managed away or slid away through arms trade etcetera), it shows that the problem is not money.

The problem is actually making sure governments are able to invest in what they want to invest in; they are able to persuade the banking system and the wealthiest in their own countries to invest in their future.

And attract the right international investments and be clear with donors on what kind of donations they need.  It is all about African countries taking control of their own agenda.

Something good is happening in Rwanda, Togo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya. Rapid progress is being made to cross the energy access gap, the question is speed and scale.

There is always going to be some international support, but let it be more of Africa investing its own money and Africans investing in their own future. That is more sustainable.

Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) will be financed by closing illegal transfers of money, improving tax base, investing more in domestic development and using an international grants in the most strategic ways possible.

From the conversations at the Sustainable Energy Forum for East Africa, do you see that hunger from leaders needed to deliver a universal electrification targets sooner than later? 

Such meetings are important because you have regional governments trying to put in place a whole new framework aimed at delivering energy access to everybody, increasing the amount of renewables and making plans that are more energy-efficient.

The trick is how to attract investments.

You see governments trying to do things that are needed for investors to respond.

But very few governements in Africa have really good plans for energy efficiency. Yet this is the first thing you have to do if you don’t have to build more energy generating capacity and making sure people don’t buy more power than they need.

The most important thing about such gatherings is that there is dialogue between private sector doing everything possible to invest and the governments which need to increase energy access working towards a common goal.

Do you think solar systems are what Africa needs for sustainable energy access?

I think, in East Africa, there is a remarkable solar resource. Quality of the solar energy in this region is remarkable. East Africa is blessed with fantastic solar, very good winds especially in northern Kenya and South Sudan, and geothermal in other parts of the region is beginning to be exploited; in Rwanda, Kenya and Ethiopia and then there is offshore gas and there is Lake Kivu (methane) gas and hydro.

I mean there are few places on the planet that have that mix of resources. That mix should bear the load of energy we need to industrialise and with that solar, you can install as much as you want because it is abundant.

Rwanda intends to achieve universal access to energy and 100 per cent clean cooking solutions by 2030. This goal is deemed too ambitious given that previous targets were largely unmet. What policy advice would you give Rwanda on how best to increase access to energy?

Rwanda is already doing a lot of things to meet energy targets. One most important thing is to have a clear vision, the political leadership that drives through to the top checking on the targets regularly and making sure that trade regime, especially for a landlocked country, allows the components of an energy system to come in to close access gap and regulations being top notch.

Rwanda is doing well in all the above but there is more to be done in ensuring energy efficiency and subsidising access to clean energy and make it affordable.

This is an opportunity for Rwanda to become a leading player.

How far has the world gone on Goal 7 of the SDGs which seeks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all?

We are still behind of where we need to be. We have to double our efforts. When it comes to access, we expect a new report to be published in May and we will be able to see the improvement made.

About two years ago, there were about 1.2 billion people who didn’t have access to energy; we think that it is going to come below a million. That is good news.

The bad news is that the proportion of that 1 billion who don’t have access to electricity who are Africans is increasing. Progress is being made in the rest of the world, but not at the same pace in Africa.

We still have about 3 billion people worldwide who don’t have access to clean cooking energy. This is outrageous in 2018. We need a massive effort towards clean power. We are nowhere near the renewable energy that we need. And energy efficiency is coming from a low base and we have to treble the efforts.

We can see good examples of this that have worked around the world but need to scale it up.

Why this low progress?

I think there is competition for priorities. And energy efficiency is not just being understood; governments are focusing on doing more, building more and creating job opportunities and they don’t focus on saving and reducing expenditure.

In that regard, Africa can lead the way; it is going to have to do it differently because there is more and more political will.

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