Review of Environment, Energy and Economics - Re3 Universal Access to Energy: a Reachable Target?


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Universal Access to Energy: a Reachable Target?
by Jacopo Bonan
Energy - Comments

Re3 publishes a selection of interviews to leading experts collected during the International Workshop “Energy Poverty and Energy Access: Global Challenges and Goals» held in Milan on July 10, 2014.

Energy access - the so-called "missed" Millennium Development Goal, is considered a fundamental driver of economic and social development. It is a key condition to guarantee access to clean water, sanitation, schooling and business in developing countries. In the words of UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, "Universal energy access is a key priority on the global development agenda. It is a foundation for all the Millennium Development Goals". 

Energy poverty involves a large proportion of the global population, mainly concentrated in  developing countries and in Sub-Saharan Africa. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that currently 1.3 billion people (20% of the world’s population) lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion (40% of the global population) rely on traditional cooking methods based on the use of biomass with severe consequences on health due to indoor air pollution (IEA, 2010). 

The importance of access to energy for economic development and household welfare is underlined by Ujjayant Chakravorty, Tufts University. 

Access to modern energy services may allow reallocation of household time (especially by women and children) from energy provision to improved education and income generation. People can also benefit from greater flexibility in time allocation through the day and evening derived from better lighting. When combined with other infrastructures, access to modern energy services lowers transportation and communication costs, and favours a better access to markets and information. Access to electricity may also improve rural productivity, due to the introduction of technology, and may therefore directly contribute to household income and push labour supply in non-agricultural activities. 

Sustainable energy development made its first appearance in the international inter-governmental agenda at the United Nations General Assembly in 1997. In 2000 the World Energy Assessment first addresses the nexus among energy, social issues, health and environment in a general context of energy access & security, and efficiency, in particular at rural level,and depicts energy scenarios. Important international appointments set energy sustainability as a priority for global development, i.e., the Ninth Session of the Commission on Sustainable Development in 2001 and the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg in 2002. In the latter, energy access is recognized as a crucial aspect for the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, calling for the implementation of sustainable patterns of energy production and use. In 2010 the Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change to the United Nations’ Secretary-General proposes to the international community a set of energy-related goals (AGECC 2010), summarized by the universal energy access by 2030. 2012 is declared the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All by the UN General Assembly, in order to catalyze global attention and commitment on these topics. In 2012 the SEFA - Sustainable Energy for All – program is launched, as one of the results of the Rio+20 Conference. Its main goal is to assure universal access to modern and sustainable energy by 2030, improving the rate of renewables in the energy mix and promoting energy efficiency. The objectives are to increase renewable energy - which currently constitutes 15% of the global energy mix - to 30%, and to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. 

SEFA clearly states that the cooperation among research, private and public sector is the key to achieve this goal. Despite the praise for action, it is still unclear which public and private initiatives and policy design can be used to best attain the goals of energy poverty eradication. The debate on the possibility to reach the targets and on the strategies and policies to be implemented is still very open and is enriched by the contributions of Shonali Pachauri, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Carlo Carraro, Ca’ Foscari University and FEEM and Stefano Bologna, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). 

Political will, in terms of sustained policies, large investments, cooperation among governments, private sector, international organizations and civil society are key ingredients to reach the target of universal access to energy. A key role can be played by renewable energy, taking advantage of new technologies, not necessarily relying on grid connection, to exploit the potential of renewable resources which are very abundant in most of developing countries.



Universal access to energy, economic development and environmental sustainability are important targets which seem difficult to be achieved simultaneously. However, as underlined by Lucius Mayer-Tasch, (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, GIZ), these targets are not necessarily conflicting. In fact, they can be an opportunity to take advantage of new technologies and energy systems which mitigate such trade-offs. Energy efficiency is another important factor which can help solve this “trilemma”, contributing to both environmental sustainability and economic development. 


The interviews were collected during the International Workshop “Energy Poverty and Energy Access: Global Challanges and Goals", jointly organized by FEEM and Lab Expo (Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation), in collaboration with eni. Questions presented to speakers are part of the “Main Questions” of LabExpo (Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation).









Jacopo Bonan, Catholic University of the Sacred Heart and LabExpo, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli Foundation