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The United Nations Says Sustainable Energy Will Go Worldwide in 2012

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is calling for universal energy access by 2030.

Yesterday, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the United Nations’ International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, calling on businesses and governments around the world to speed the adoption of energy efficiency measures, rely more heavily on renewable energy sources, and help ensure universal energy access by 2030.

“One in five people on the planet lacks access to electricity,” Ban wrote in a New York Times op-ed. “Twice as many, almost 3 billion, use wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste to cook meals and heat homes, exposing themselves and their families to harmful smoke and fumes. This energy poverty is devastating to human development.”

When the U.N. set its Millennium Development Goals in 2000, energy access did not make the list. Since then, the need for energy access has become clear to the international development community: Goals like ending poverty and creating universal education are easier when electricity is readily available. Meanwhile, renewable energy technology has made the possibility of cheap, clean electricity available even to communities living off the grid. In 2010, the U.N. members states voted to devote 2012 to pushing for sustainable energy access.

Speaking at the World Future Energy Summit yesterday, Ban laid out three overarching goals for energy development. He asked the world to double its use of renewable energy, double the rate of energy efficiency improvement, and to make electricity and clean cooking facilities available universally—all by 2030. “Across the world, we see momentum building for concrete action that reduces energy poverty, catalyzes sustainable growth and mitigates climate change,” he said. “Achieving sustainable energy is both feasible and necessary."

Those who lack access to modern energy services tend to spend a greater portion of their income on dirtier sources of energy, like kerosene or wood and other biomass. As the price of renewable energy technology—particularly solar power—drops, these alternative energy sources have become a cost-effective alternative. Solar panels can replace diesel generators in off-the-grid irrigation systems or kerosene lanterns for household use, for instance.

Some observers of international climate negotiations also have begun to emphasize the importance of low-carbon development as path to a worldwide draw-down of carbon emissions. For the world’s most successful economies, development required increased energy use, and at past U.N.-led climate negotiations, countries with growing economies have been wary about limiting emissions. Greater access to renewable energy could help encourage economic growth without a corresponding uptick in the amount of greenhouse gas released.

The U.N.’s program includes developing an “action agenda,” to be presented in June at Rio+20, a U.N.-led conference on sustainable development. By then, the Secretary-General said, he hopes to hear action commitments from businesses and governments to help further the goals he has outlined. The goal of Rio+20 is for high-level government representatives to renew political commitments to sustainable development, of which energy access will be a keystone.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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