In Rio, we need to be ambitious, and realistic, about energy access

Benjamin Sporton, WCA Deputy Chief Executive

Benjamin Sporton, WCA Deputy Chief Executive

The final stretch of negotiations before next week’s Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development are now underway. Going into this final round of talks, it is going to prove a challenge to have a text ready for world leaders to adopt when they arrive in Rio de Janeiro next week. As a successor to the original Rio summit held 20 years ago, there is a raft of issues that need to be dealt with to address environmental concerns and promote sustainable development across the globe.

One thing that has become clear is that many parties see a divergence between issues of environment and poverty eradication. Regrettably it seems as though for some, the challenge of addressing both these issues simultaneously is a bridge too far.

The key issue at the negotiations from the WCA’s perspective is access to energy. It is one of the issues that really demonstrates what some see as being achievable in the divide between environmental and development challenges.

Getting electricity to the 1.3 billion people who lack it today must be a major focus of the Rio conference. Without achieving access to energy eradicating poverty will be pretty much impossible. And if we are serious about the task we must be ambitious about the energy access project. Energy systems that provide reliable electricity in homes, support schools and hospitals and enable businesses and industries to thrive are essential for achieving the economic and social development that will bring hundreds of millions out of poverty.

To achieve that end there needs to be huge investment in the energy sector. All sources of energy will have an important role to play. But some groups want to limit the sources from which the developed world can turn to improve their energy supplies. For many, in the lead up to the Rio conference the focus has been on promoting renewable energy technologies, and they are important, but many groups have also wanted to exclude other sources of energy that will be critical to meeting the challenge.

According to the IEA, coal will play a significant role in addressing the energy for all challenge. They predict that half of the on grid electricity needed to deliver energy for all will be provided by coal and yet this seems to have been forgotten in the negotiations leading up to next week’s conference. Many countries have significant coal reserves and these will play a major role in improving energy access. National governments must be able to determine the energy pathways that best suit them – that suit their financial, technical and natural resources.

Allowing all sources of energy to support development can be done in conjunction with meeting environment and climate goals. All sources of low carbon electricity will need to be involved in delivering the world’s energy needs into the future. There needs to be stronger international support for all low carbon technologies, including the deployment of high efficiency low emission coal fired power plants as a first step to the future deployment of carbon capture , use and storage technology. That way environmental and climate objectives can work in tandem with development and energy access objectives. We can’t afford to abandon one for the other, but at the moment it seems a rush to address environmental objectives risks side-lining a key part of the arsenal in the fight against global poverty.

We need to be ambitious here in Rio, but we also need to be realistic. Development and environmental challenges can only be met by supporting countries to harness their own resources, not by imposing simple and idealistic solutions to complex problems.