International Year of Sustainable Energy for All
In recognition of the importance of energy for sustainable development, the United Nations has designated 2012 as the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All.
Energy affects all aspects of development – social, economic, and environmental – including livelihoods, access to water, agricultural productivity, health, population levels, education, and gender-related issues. None of the Millennium Development Goals can be met (for example) without major improvement in the quality and quantity of energy services in developing countries.
The scale of the problem is truly daunting... a staggering 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity at all, whilst 1 billion more only have intermittent access. In addition, almost half of humanity – some 2.7 billion people – rely on traditional biomass (wood, charcoal, dung) as fuel for cooking and heating, with nearly two million dying annually – mainly women and children – from a range of chronic illnesses associated with indoor air pollution.
Not only does access to energy transform the lives of the energy poor by raising living standards:
· sustainable energy enables income generation – for example, through solar pumps for irrigation or electricity for a small business;
· sustainable energy provides power to community health clinics, and refrigerators to store medicines, as well as cell phones which have transformed commerce;
· sustainable energy reduces the time and drudgery of collecting fuel wood, supporting cleaner, more efficient cooking and heating options;
· sustainable energy provides lighting so children can study after dark;
· sustainable energy enables businesses to operate and creates new opportunities for entrepreneurs.
Clearly, access to energy is indistinguishable from a sustainable future for the developing world.
This isn't exclusively a developing world problem however. For the developed world, climate change represents a threat to continued prosperity and stability. While meeting the basic energy needs of all the world's people would contribute less than 2% to current global emissions, short-sighted politics, disconnected from climate science, disconnected from those whose lives will be affected by climate change, and disconnected from principles of justice or equity have, have dominated negotiations to date. Equally worrying: more than 85% of the world’s energy production remains fossil-fuel based (oil, gas, coal).
Within the European Union for example, and despite consuming 15 per cent of the world's energy, 84 million people are directly affected by poverty and social exclusion, with the elderly, single mothers, the disabled and minority groups particularly at risk. In Hungary alone, 80 per cent of households pay so much of their income on high energy bills that they face energy poverty. The goals that we have set for ourselves in Europe to mitigate climate change can never be fully realised without acknowledging and confronting these inconvenient facts.
The other uncomfortable truth is that the biggest obstacle to sustainability remains consumer demand. Consider the observation that, if the EU reduced its energy consumption by just one per cent – that's nothing: that's equivalent to one household in thirty replacing their old light bulbs with compact fluorescents – 50 coal plants or 25,000 wind turbine equivalents would not be needed. And whereas new energy generation techniques take years to come on stream, energy demand savings and efficiency improvements can be implemented today, with existing technologies, skilled know-how and financing mechanisms.
As such, the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All presents a valuable opportunity to raise awareness about the importance of increasing sustainable access to energy, energy efficiency, and renewable energy at the local, national, regional and international levels. In doing so, we must avoid entering into an artificial trade-off between access to sustainable energy and the need to tackle climate change. As energy-related emissions account for more than 80 per cent of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere each year, sustainable energy solutions can help to bring significant economic and societal benefits, as well as providing the most cost-effective and fastest way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Doing nothing, or tweaks and improvements at the margins, is not an option. One of the primary challenges as we approach 2050 will be to raise living standards throughout the world, in the most low-carbon way possible. Next year, we will be given an opportunity to exhibit foresight, compassion and leadership by example. I encourage you to get involved, and support sustainable energy for all.
Paul Parrish Policy Officer (Sustainable Energy Security), Quaker Council for European Affairs (QCEA)