Interview with Christoph Frei, Secretary General of WEC at Rio+20

Posted on 22 June 2012

Christoph Frei

Interview by Monique Tsang

Christoph Frei joined Pierre Gadonneix and José Antonio Vargas Lleras in representing the WEC at the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) meetings in Rio+20. In an interview, he talks about how the WEC has helped put energy firmly within global development.

What was your overall impression of Rio?

While there has been criticism of Rio, the positive message is that energy has clearly come out at the centre of development. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself stated it, and there was certainly a strong perception of that in his SE4ALL High Level Group.

Having commitments made from so many organisations to SE4ALL is also a positive signal.

The three goals of SE4ALL – universal energy access, double renewable energy, and double energy efficiency improvements – where does the WEC stand on those?

First of all, we must remember that SE4ALL has achieved something significant – the fact that energy is now seen as a key enabler for development. That, in itself, should be recognised and celebrated.

The goals of the WEC and SE4ALL are strongly aligned. Our objectives are pragmatically pushing in the same direction. But from the perspective of the energy trilemma, which is the WEC’s definition of energy sustainability, SE4ALL’s goals are pragmatic, but partial, objectives.

At the WEC we say that we need security of supply, and renewables are part of that answer. We need environmentally viable energy, and renewables and energy efficiency are part of that. We need social equity, and that includes affordability; SE4ALL’s objectives for energy access are pushing in the same direction.

You attended the SE4ALL High Level Group meetings. What was your message there?

To celebrate energy as a key enabler for development. And that the WEC can offer our process to help catalyse the progress of SE4ALL.

The only way that SE4ALL’s objectives can have meaningful, long-term impact is to measure their progress year by year. They must be measured in themselves, but also they must be measured in a policy context.

The WEC is taking part in the SE4ALL benchmarking study. What does that involve?

The study will form the baseline for tracking the goals of SE4ALL. But also, through our annual policy assessment we have already been tracking the impact of energy policies, so we can offer this experience to the UN. It’s important that we don’t duplicate efforts and reinvent the wheel.

Increasing energy access, which is pretty much the social equity aspect of the energy trilemma, is high on the WEC’s agenda. What is needed to achieve energy access?

The key problems are around financing, skills, enabling frameworks, and actually understanding the problem. 85% of energy poverty is in rural villages. We don’t know what the resources in these villages are. The resources in those villages need to be further investigated.

The skills in those places are a scare resource. We need to think about how skills can be broadened through public-private partnerships.

We also need financing. No utility infrastructure has been set up on a commercial basis, so funding is critical.

In order to electrify those villages, there needs to be enabling frameworks. For this we need to work with utilities and to have government support for those efforts. But again, those enabling frameworks must be embedded within a wider policy framework, and it’s important we’re tracking its impact.

You talked about this very subject at the Rio+20 Energy Day. What was the audience response?

There was quite a bit of pick-up on my point about the need for policy tracking. There was a real sense of consensus that we need a tracking mechanism. We need to better understand policy, and what is a good policy.

How was Rio+20 different from the Earth Summit 20 years ago?

Unlike the 1992 Summit and the Millennium Development Goals eight years after that, energy is now clearly mentioned as an important enabler of development. And unlike 20 years ago, when business was demonised, business is now seen to be important in helping to make that happen. The sense of multi-stakeholder involvement was very perceivable.

But it was also more difficult to arrive at consensus today. That’s because there are a lot more issues now than 20 years ago.

There has been cynicism about whether Rio+20 would achieve anything. Indeed following the Summit many people were disappointed, seeing that the outcome document was short on commitments. In your view, what’s the value of this kind of meeting where no laws are made?

When several thousand people meet with so many agendas out there, it’s unlikely that a big picture outcome would emerge.

You cannot achieve concrete outcomes through a single meeting. What you need is a sustained process. Not within a year, but over decades. You need the institutional commitment, capability, and process to track objectives and progress. A single event can never achieve that.

However, Rio+20 had great symbolic power. It brought home the point about energy as key enabler of development. That in itself was an achievement.