April 2011
By: Mohamed El-Ashry

In 1992, the international community gathered in Rio to offer a vision for a more sustainable future. At that meeting, two new international environmental agreements were opened for signature: the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. At the UN Millennium Summit in 2000 and the Rio+10 World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002, the international community sought to accelerate progress on this global agenda by 1) adopting the Millennium Development Goals; and 2) urging intensified work on Rio’s Agenda 21 and on the implementation of Johannesburg’s public-private partnerships in the area of health, food and agriculture, water, energy, and biodiversity. Thus, with regard to energy, Johannesburg created the foundation for a “green” economy and low-carbon growth strategies.

While the world has seen some reduction of poverty and transformational growth within some countries since 1992, the goal of sustainability remains elusive. Total global energy consumption has grown by 30% in the last 20 years and greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have risen nearly as much. The International Energy Agency forecasts that $16 trillion will be invested in the global energy sector between now and 2030. In the same period, global population is expected to reach 8 billion, and global energy consumption will increase by nearly 30% from today’s levels. Access to modern energy services is essential for the realization of economic development, yet the current model for providing these services is both costly and unsustainable.

To attain the goal of sustainable development, developed and developing countries alike need a new approach that expands clean energy access while sharply reducing the energy consumption required for economic growth and development. Achieving this goal requires domestic policies that provide incentives for efficiency in energy production and use and for public and private investments in renewable energy sources.

Energy waste is widespread in the world. Large-scale adoption of cost-effective, commercially available energy efficiency technologies would lower energy costs, improve energy security, and enable greater energy access. The UN Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate recommends that by 2030, global energy intensity should be reduced by 40%. Reaching this goal will require a doubling of the annual rate of energy efficiency improvement.

Together with energy efficiency, renewable energy creates economic and job opportunities, moderates climate change, and enhances energy security and sustainable development. The world has tapped only a small fraction of the vast supply of renewable energy sources. Besides finance, the recent dramatic growth in renewable energy use has been largely due to supportive national policies. To significantly increase the use of renewable energy in the total energy mix as called for in Johannesburg, policy efforts, international cooperation, and large-scale private investment should be mobilized in support of a goal of reaching 30% of total primary energy supply by 2030.

The financial needs for the transition to sustainable energy in developing countries will likely be in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The bulk of the money will have to come from private investments, leveraged by public finance and enabling policy frameworks. Indeed, the Copenhagen Accord established a “Green Fund” and set a goal of mobilizing $100 billion a year for climate change mitigation and adaptation in developing countries by 2020 and made it clear that the funding will have to come “from a variety of sources, public and private and including alternative sources of finance.” This amount of finance, which is significant, is less than one-third of current fossil fuel subsidies which totaled $ 312 billion in 2009.

The task for world leaders when they meet in Rio in 2012 (Rio+20) is to forge a common vision for global sustainability—a vision driven by countries interest in economic development and energy security and builds on agreements for addressing climate change and achieving the Millennium Development Goals.