Energy poverty puts 2050 net-zero target at risk

Special representative of UN chief is 'raising the ambition' of clean and cheap electricity for all

Damilola Ogunbiyi, a special representative of the UN Secretary General and chief executive of Sustainable Energy for All, is advocating for greater focus on clean electrification ahead of COP26.

The planet cannot achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and reverse climate change without universal access to clean and cheap electricity by 2030, according to a UN representative.

“The math doesn't come together,” Damilola Ogunbiyi, who co-chairs UN-Energy and is the special representative advising the UN Secretary General on sustainable energy, told The National.

“People do not tend to understand the relationship between energy poverty and climate change” and it is “unacceptable” to ignore the nearly 1 billion people around the world without access to electricity, she said.

Energy generation is the largest contributor to climate change, accounting for 60 per cent of global emissions. As the world's population continues to grow, so will the demand for cheap energy, and an economy reliant on fossil fuels is causing drastic changes to the climate, according to the UN.

Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people with electricity climbed from 78 per cent to 87 per cent, while that of people without electricity dipped to slightly below one billion. Meanwhile, 3 billion people – 40 per cent of the global population – rely on polluting and unhealthy fuels for cooking.

Ms Ogunbiyi is the UN’s leader on Sustainable Development Goal 7: ensuring access to cheap, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030.

She was in Abu Dhabi last week, her latest stop on a global tour laying the groundwork for the UN's high-level dialogue on energy, to be held in New York in September.

The meeting will be the first global gathering in 40 years on energy under the auspices of the UN's General Assembly, providing a historic opportunity to rally support for the Paris Agreement on limiting climate change.

While the world is falling behind on its climate commitment, Ms Ogunbiyi said her goal is to “raise the ambition” of hitting the Sustainable Development Goal 7 by 2030.

Over the next decade, Africa and South Asia are going to be the only places where more power is needed instead of less, she said.

You can be clean from day one. And that is why I talk about the opportunity instead of the challenge
Damilola Ogunbiyi

“You can be clean from day one. And that is why I talk about the opportunity instead of the challenge," she said. “I'm still very optimistic [about achieving SDG 7]. I have to be, because the technology is there."

The potential economic uplift would be massive. Sub-Saharan Africa would unlock a five-fold increase in economic output, and pull 1 billion people out of poverty.

“The UAE is showing [climate] leadership but we also need them to do it internationally. We need the countries themselves to say these are my energy transition targets but also, this is how I help people who are less advantaged,” said Ms Ogunbiyi.

To that end, she wants to see a far larger number of off-grid projects taking place in Africa. Too often, we “talk about these big scale, wonderful concentrated solar plants and then connecting to a lovely grid, and all of a sudden there is light,” she said.

“That is not real life. There are very few grids in a lot of developing countries that can take a large surge of renewable energy today.”

She said approaches to electrification have to be tailored to community needs, whether that means decentralised or off-grid solutions, as well as big, utility-scale solutions, in order to reach the SDG 7 target.

Electrification is also a major point of concern for an equitable distribution of Covid-19 vaccines and recovery from the pandemic.

Only 23 per cent of primary healthcare centres in Africa have electricity, Ms Ogunbiyi, who is also the chief executive of Clean Energy for All, said. The majority of clinics do not have the cold storage needed to safely store vaccines.

“I mean a lot when I say electricity is the difference between life and death,” she said.

Demand for clean cooking fuels is another largely untapped opportunity for reducing carbon emissions and creating economic growth. About 3 billion people cook using polluting open fires or simple stoves fuelled by kerosene, wood or coal, according to the World Health Organisation.

Each year, about 4 million people die prematurely from illnesses attributable to household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices using polluting stoves paired with solid fuels and kerosene.

“I think it is absolutely unacceptable as a global world that we see 1.6 million African women die every year because they use fuel wood,” said Ms Ogunbiyi.

Increasing access to clean electrification and cooking would reduce poverty and gender-based violence, cutting the average cooking time from four hours to one.

Ahead of Cop26 in Glasgow in November, Ms Ogunbiyi is calling for a physical pavilion at the meeting dedicated to SDG 7, for governments and the private sector to have a place to meet and plan.

“Energy is that golden thread that affects everything,” she said. “There are a lot [of the Sustainable Development Goals] that cannot be achieved if the one on SDG 7 is not achieved, from gender to water to health.”

Updated: July 04, 2021, 1:37 PM