Sustainable energy for all: One year later

Posted on 17 October 2013

Providing energy for more than a billion of the world’s poor will need good governance in developing countries and a willingness in developed nations to tolerate increases in greenhouse gas emissions, the World Energy Congress was told on 17 October.

“In one petroleum-rich country with a population of 150 million, half the people are off the electricity grid. If they spent 0.6% of their oil income on electrification, they could provide electricity for everyone,” said Fatih Birol, Chief Economist of the International Energy Agency (IEA). “So it is essentially a governance issue.” But Birol warned that where strong governments have been able to provide electricity to large numbers of citizens, the fuel of choice was not green, but black. “It was coal,” said Birol. “Take the Korean example. The government has articulated a policy of green growth. And yet if you look at the figures you will see that Korea achieved its miraculous growth thanks largely to coal. And this is true for the region as a whole.”

Birol was speaking on a panel discussing the UN’ SE4ALL Initiative, unveiled one year ago by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Experts from other international agencies agreed that requiring the developing world not only to provide the poor with energy but also to demand that the energy sources be sustainable was inconsistent with reality.

“We cannot tell people in Kenya that we will give them financial support but only if they refrain from using coal,” said Kandeh Yumkella, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative & CEO of the SE4ALL. “These people cannot afford to be green.”

The World Bank’s Director of Sustainable Energy, Vijay Iyer stressed that it was up to the developed world to “help bring costs down.” Iyer raised the example of hydroelectricity as an option for cheap and sustainable energy for developing countries.

Bruno Lescoeur, CEO of Edison in Italy, cited the case of a hydro project in Laos that sells part of the electricity it produces to Thailand while providing some for Laos to promote industrial development. Lescoeur also argued on behalf of nuclear energy. “The industry has good infrastructure and good capability.”

Birol stated that large turn-key projects may prove too expensive for the poorest of the world’s poor. “You cannot tell people who have no access to energy that they need to use clean energy if it is more expensive than what they can afford. You have to let them use whatever makes economic sense.” Birol indicated that in all likelihood that will mean coal. “But even if all the 1.3 billon people who at present lack access to energy were to rely on thermal energy for their power, the amount of CO2 that would be released in the atmosphere is a tiny fraction of amounts released today,” Birol said.


This news story is based on the Opening session, “Sustainable energy for all: One year later”, at the 2013 World Energy Congress.