The world stands at a crossroads in its energy future

The UN General Assembly's first-ever Sustainability Week is a chance to keep the momentum towards renewables going

Workers carry a solar panel for installation in the western Indian state of Gujarat last September. AP
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Transforming the world’s energy landscape should not just be an environmental imperative, but the cornerstone of our collective pursuit for a sustainable future for both the planet and for human habitation.

Today’s reality presents a twofold challenge: on the one hand, 675 million people lack access to electricity. On the other, global emissions are out of control, a situation exacerbated by the fact that 2.3 billion people are forced to rely on polluting fuels for cooking. The consequences are felt disproportionately by the poor, including women and girls.

Therefore, ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy is a matter of both social and environmental justice. Given the connections between the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, it is integral that we meet global commitments. So, how do we get there?

Firstly, we must meet the commitments we have already made and, where possible, increase our levels of ambition. Various UN General Assembly resolutions, including those most recently adopted in 2022 and 2023, serve as seeds sown within the collective conscience of the UN’s 193 member states, emphasising that equitable access to energy is at the root of our potential to advance the objectives set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The targets contained within SDG 7, which has access to energy for all as its goal, underscore its indispensable role as a linchpin connecting to other SDGs – from poverty eradication and health to education and gender equality.

Global energy demand is projected to grow by leaps and bounds in coming decades. But over-reliance on fossil fuels drives climate change, pollution and geopolitical tensions; it is high time for a radical change. We cannot and must not ignore that the month of March was the hottest month ever since weather reporting began. Renewable energy – including solar, wind, hydro and geothermal power – offers a promising alternative.

These conflicting demands came sharply into focus at Cop28 in Dubai, where the tensions between the calls for “more energy” and “cleaner energy” revealed deep-seated divisions. However, amid these challenges, a historic milestone was achieved as 118 countries committed to tripling the world's renewable energy capacity by 2030. This landmark decision signifies a decisive move towards progressively decarbonising the energy sector, stepping away from heavy reliance on fossil fuels as the primary source of global energy production.

The sector, which accounts for three quarters of global greenhouse gas emissions, could witness a significant transformation if member states uphold their commitments. This transformation could possibly involve expanding nuclear power, reducing methane emissions and halting private finance for coal power.

When it comes to climate justice, more collaborative and inclusive means must be explored to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all

The question now arises: how can we build upon this momentum and accelerate our efforts further, faster and together? The Global Stocktake that marks the completion of the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All presents a vital opportunity for precisely that, as it offers an ideal platform for policymakers to treat renewable energy policies as a top priority, entailing incentives for clean energy investments and the phase-out of subsidies for fossil fuels. In essence, it is an opportunity for member states to reaffirm and uphold their commitments made before and at Cop28. The UAE Consensus highlights the imperative of transitioning away from fossil fuels towards renewable energy sources in a just and equitable manner. This consensus emphasises the tripling of global renewable energy capacity and doubling the rate of energy efficiency improvements by 2030, alongside efforts to address energy poverty and ensure just transitions.

When it comes to climate justice, more collaborative and inclusive means must be explored to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. As things currently stand, renewable energy distribution is a far cry from equitable – the G20 countries alone account for 90 per cent of installed capacity. Bridging the gap of universal access to energy requires concerted efforts to prioritise inclusive and equitable energy transitions, while ensuring no one is left behind.

Businesses also play a pivotal role in accelerating the transition to renewable energy. By adopting sustainable practices and investing in renewable energy infrastructure, corporations can not only reduce their environmental footprint but also enhance their long-term competitiveness. Individuals can also contribute to the transition by embracing energy-efficient practices and advocating for renewable energy initiatives in their communities. Whether through rooftop solar installations or supporting local renewable energy projects, every individual has the power to drive positive change.

As President of the UN General Assembly, I am honoured to convene the Assembly’s first-ever Sustainability Week from April 15 to 19 in New York. This weeklong series of events will address critical issues, namely debt sustainability, tourism, sustainable transport, infrastructure and – as the culmination of our discussions on the final day – energy for all. This event will mark the Global Stocktake concluding the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All, where member states will have the chance to both look back and look forward.

I reaffirm the sentiment expressed at the outset: we stand at a crossroads in our energy future, and the choice is clear. Continue down the path of fossil-fuel dependency or embrace and scale up investment in renewable energy as a catalyst for sustainable development.

By harnessing the power of renewables, we can create a cleaner, healthier and more prosperous world for present and future generations. These very themes are at the forefront of significant work at the UN – foremost among them, the Summit of the Future, scheduled to take place in New York in September. My ambition is for Sustainability Week to feed into the preparations for the summit over the next few months, as well as all other major conferences and events leading up to it, encouraging member states to engage deeply in the process and deliver concrete outcomes.

It's time to act decisively and transition to a sustainable energy future. The stakes are high, but the opportunities for positive change are limitless – let’s seize them.

Published: April 15, 2024, 2:00 PM