Interview with José Antonio Vargas Lleras, WEC's Vice Chair for Latin America at Rio+20 Summit

Posted on 1 June 2012

Jose Antonio Vargas LlerasJosé Antonio Vargas Lleras will be representing the WEC at the Rio+20 Summit this month. In an interview, he talks about energy for development, and what Latin America needs.

Twenty years on from the first Earth Summit in Rio, how have the world’s development challenges changed?

The main result of the 1992 Earth Summit was that the issue of the environment was transformed from a purely scientific issue to a political one. Since then, the challenges have been focused on economic, social, environment issues and human well-being. The first Summit has also encouraged an increase in the use of renewable energy and government’s efforts to promote this in some countries.

The Rio Summit aimed to promote sustainable development. However, the lack of commitment from emerging economies such as China and India and most developed countries has meant that agreements remain on paper.

Energy is one of the seven areas highlighted as needing priority attention at Rio+20. What are the key issues and trends?

Since 1950 global energy consumption has increased fivefold and CO2 emissions from the intensive use of oil have increased more than fourfold. The rapid growth in energy consumption and emissions is in conflict with the concept of sustainable development.

The key issues and trends are related to energy sustainability as defined by the WEC, with three main dimensions: energy security, social equity, and environmental impact mitigation.

The development of a stable, affordable, and environmentally sensitive energy system constitute a ‘trilemma’ entailing complex, interwoven links between public and private sectors, governments and regulators, economic factors, national resources, environmental concerns, and the behaviours of individuals.

All elements of the trilemma are indispensable and interdependent. The main challenge is to achieve the right balance to ensure energy is sustainable in each country. Sustainability involves balancing the trade-offs between the three dimensions. This balance is key to attracting investment and contributing to energy infrastructure development.

What challenges are there for Latin America?

The challenges for Latin America (with nearly 200 million poor) are focused on ensuring accessible and affordable energy, at the lowest possible social cost, across the population. In the region, unlike other countries, the priority for developing and implementing environmental policies should be aimed at climate change adaptation rather than mitigation.

Latin America’s energy mix is based on clean energies, mainly hydroelectricity. Taking this into account, our challenge is in adapting to and managing the risks associated with climate variability. This is our real vulnerability because Latin American countries have been contributing to only a small proportion of CO2 emissions (4% of global total), but they are frequently the victims of the effects and negative impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels, changes in rainfall, animal migration, degradation of the Amazon, melting of glaciers, and human displacement.

Regional cooperation and technological breakthroughs will have a significant impact in addressing these challenges. Integration of national energy systems in the region would lead to economies of scale, cost reduction, and increasing in the reliability of supply.

Effective energy policies need strong, open and effective institutions. The interest of all stakeholders must be as aligned as possible.

Is government input enough? Who else needs to be involved?

In Latin America, many governments have been active in sustainable development. As an example Brazil and Colombia have been working with biofuels and other green energies.

Constructive dialogue between policymakers, manufacturers, consumers and producers will be essential to meeting development challenges. Governments and public bodies play an important role in designing and implementing rules to stimulate investment in sustainable infrastructure. These policies can reduce the risks of regulatory changes which may inhibit investments. This, in turn, will optimise the private sector’s ability to attract capital for public-private partnerships.

Can you give an example of how this kind of collaboration can make a difference?

Brazil’s ‘Light for All’ programme is an example. In this project, the federal government is paying up to 85% of the costs of energy companies for installing small solar, wind and hydro projects in isolated communities. In the past nine years the project has succeeded in bringing electricity to nearly 12 million people.

Colombia incorporated the new energy management standard ‘ISO 500,001′ with the participation of business, government and scientific institutions. The standard will play a vital role in encouraging businesses and consumers to incorporate energy efficiency into buildings and transport. Some businesses are engaging young people in schools on the importance of reducing energy bills and the rational use of electricity.

Central America has the capacity to develop more than 31,000 MW of its renewable resource (60% hydroelectric, 30% wind, 10% geothermal). Panama, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala have new hydroelectric, wind, solar and geothermal projects – a change from their oil-based energy economy.

What outcomes are you hoping to see emerge from Rio+20?

Rio+20 is crucial for consolidating solutions and guidelines focused on energy access in order to promote economic, social, and ecological development. The Summit should reaffirm the need to shift towards using renewable energy to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels. For this, it must establish effective mechanisms to promote and develop global frameworks, technology, and political agreements which encourage public-private partnerships.

In relation to the security of energy supply, it is important to consider all primary energy sources and put greater emphasis on the drive for cleaner and low-carbon technologies.

Finally, it is necessary to promote and support electric transport, the development of smart grids, and the concept of sustainable cities, particularly in relation to the rational and efficient use of energy, including bioclimatic and sustainable construction.

As you look ahead to representing the WEC at Rio+20 with Secretary General Christoph Frei and Chairman Pierre Gadonneix, what do you aim to see achieved there?

The Rio+20 meeting is a great opportunity for all stakeholders to share their concerns, experiences, and innovative proposals to achieve a sustainable planet.

Achieving energy systems that are accessible and affordable, stable, and environmental sensitive is the universal aspiration.

José Antonio Vargas Lleras will be speaking as one of the ten panellists at the Sustainable Energy for All session of the Global Sustainability Dialogues on 18 June in Rio. He is the WEC’s Vice Chair for the Latin America and the Caribbean region, and is also Chair of WEC Colombia (COCME).