Transition Economist: Earth Day 2021 and the energy transition

22nd April 2021

Press & MediaGlobal

Earth Day 2021 and the energy transition – reflections and new directions

Dr Angela Wilkinson, Secretary General and CEO, World Energy Council

This article was originally published in Transition Economist on 22 April 2021.

On the first Earth Day 1970, I was one in 3.7 billion on the planet. As a seven-year-old girl, I was totally unaware of global climate change, but constantly reminded of the threat of nuclear war. The previous year had made a lasting impression on me – the first televised pictures of the Earth from the Moon were beamed across the world. Without yet realising it, I was part of a new era of global-minded, environmental consciousness people. Fifty years later, and after a doubling of global population, Earth Day 2021 will highlight the net zero carbon goals being committed to by an increasing number of countries, companies, cities and communities in the run up to the COP-26 meeting in Glasgow. As a scientist working on climate change impact assessments in the late 1980s, it seems like a different world, with so many positive references to climate change science.

Some people will highlight the brief glimpses of a sustainable energy future of the COVID-19 pandemic - clear skies, quiet and uncongested city streets of a challenging year of lockdown. In my opinion, however, not using energy in order to save the climate is the equivalent of saving oxygen by not breathing – it’s not a sustainable solution.

My hope for Earth Day 2021 is that it marks a pivotal year in ‘humanising energy’. There is an urgent need to involve more people in energy transitions along multiple pathways.  Modern energy is the ultimate connector of people and geographies across the world and the bridge between hopes and fears for the future.

The ‘average’ global person (whoever you are!) uses 23,000 kWh equivalent of energy a year. To put this average ‘use’ in context of physical work, it’s the amount one person could generate by peddling a bicycle 8-hours a day, 180 days a year for about 160 years! Meanwhile billions of people worldwide still lack access to sufficient modern energy for basic needs, cooking and livelihoods. The global pandemic has highlighted the great unevenness in energy access within and between countries: 18,000 health clinics in Ethiopia have no electricity and households in some OECD countries are having to reduce their costs and make choices between energy for heating, eating, and hygiene.  The covid pandemic has created a new context of affordability and social justice, which will shape energy choices and behaviours in all regions of the world.

It easy to set goals and targets – the hard work remains ahead of us in translating net zero goals into reality. For that we need action by road builders not more road mappers. We can build forward together by engaging the increasing diversity in energy and progressing multiple transition pathways to avoid the risk that locally clean, net zero energy solutions might unintentionally lead to globally dirty and socially unfair outcomes.

The growing excitement about the accelerating pace of technology innovation – digital, renewable, clean hydrogen, electric cars, etc. – alone is not enough. For global change, the “push” of new technologies needs to be met with the “pull” of connected and increasingly diverse energy societies.

Bottom-up activation is socially messy and effective multistakeholder engagement is a technically complex, coordination challenge. It can’t be achieved by presenting reports and telling people what to do. More people want to be involved in making change happen and this, in turn, enables them to better understand the situation and what is at stake and to learn about their challenges and choices – as energy users and prosumers, as citizens, customers and communitarians.

As the world's oldest permanent energy community organisation and a UK registered charity, our world-wide World Energy Council membership base has evolved with the increasing diversity in energy systems across the world for nearly a century. Our enduring mission is to build better energy systems together.

In an increasingly crowded, fragmentated and polarised landscape of energy leadership advocacy, it is getting harder to be heard and more challenging as ever to remain a trusted, impartial, impactful and inspirational energy player and brand. Our grass-roots members reflect the astonishing diversity in energy across the world. And I mean diversity in the fullest sense - resources, technologies, systems, people, skills and capabilities.  

For decades, our common-sense community has shared experiences and tracked new energy development worldwide. Our global energy leadership agenda is informed by the unpredictable interaction of four global drivers of change, which are impacting regionally diverse energy systems and triggering multiple transition pathways, namely: decarbonisation, digitalisation, decentralisation, and demand-side disruptive innovation. We have also highlighted how new value creation in energy systems is moving along the value chain to closer the end user. This helps us to explain the emergence of a new leadership mindset of ‘customer-centricity’ in energy. This new mindset reflects an ongoing transition from the scarcity in fossil-fuels and dominance of conventional supply-side security concerns to a future of clean energy abundance, growing competition in energy service solutions involving energy and non-energy sectors and the broadening geopolitics of clean energy.

According to our World Energy Issues Monitor 2021, energy developments are being shaped by the new context of economic uncertain and will be increasingly demand-driven. Affordability, energy justice and societal acceptability matters are moving up the political agenda in all geographies and will need to be built-in to pandemic recovery and net zero action plans.  This has led us to suggest that its timely to rethink the metrics being used by investors and capital markets for the ‘S for social’ in ESG reporting in the run up to COP-26 inter-governmental meeting.

Our review of the increasing numbers of global energy and climate scenarios and roadmaps, published by corporations and international institutions, revealed that new uses, demand shifts and energy behaviours and big blind-spots. At a time when energy user data is increasingly digitalised and privatised, achieving net zero goals will also benefit from establishing energy user data and sharing new behavioural insights.

On Earth Day 2021, I hope you will join me in maintaining the vital connections in energy for peace, people, and planet. History shows that every time societies find ways to use energy more efficiently, they also create new uses for energy.

The uncomfortable truth is that most people are totally unaware of how much energy they and others use to support their livelihoods and lifestyles. It is time to involve more people in making clean and just energy transitions happen. We are working to humanise energy and to involve and activate the roles of energy users and workers, as citizens, customers and communities. Effective action to meet the global imperative of more energy and climate neutrality, will only be forthcoming with an active and an inclusive human -centric energy agenda.

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