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How do we turn the lights on for a billion people?

A lack of electricity is a fundamental obstacle to sustainable development. Image:  REUTERS/Andrea Comas

Achim Steiner
Administrator, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
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Many of us live in a world where real darkness has become a novelty. The city-dwellers of the world - more than 54% of the global population, according to the UN’s Department of Social and Economic Affairs - are less likely to have seen starlight than a street light.

But for about one in seven people, the opposite is true. According to the World Bank, 1.1 billion people, most of whom live in developing regions of Asia and Africa, still lack access to reliable electricity.

This absence creates profound challenges for societies and economies. It is an impediment to education, business and community building. A lack of electricity is a fundamental obstacle to sustainable development.

Consider an equatorial country where the sun sets at 6:30. Without electricity, how does a student revise for a school test in the dark? What of a street vendor whose business is shut down by encroaching darkness every day? How does a family power mobile phones, a computer or a television to stay connected with their community and the world? How do rural hospitals store vital medicines?

The question of access to electricity is also germane to environmental sustainability. Lighting needs are met in many rural African and Asian communities by burning kerosene or biomass, which produces noxious and polluting gases. These gases not only contribute to global warming, but seriously impact human health as well.

Traditionally, we have expanded electricity access by extending grids and building new fossil fuel plants to cater to demand. In a post-Paris world, where countries have committed to targets of greenhouse gas reduction and turned towards toward a sustainable future, this conventional development pathway will become less likely.

But where old paths end, new trails are being blazed. Surging development of renewable energy is allowing for environmentally friendly electricity generation while innovative technologies are increasing availability of this power in remote, off-grid communities. These developments are being encouraged by stronger government commitments toward renewables and a recognition by businesses of the commercial opportunities therein.

After all, sourcing our electricity from renewable energy sources is the only way to simultaneously power the planet and meet the climate change commitments set forth in Paris. Fortunately, we are on the right track.

In 2014, some 50% of all investments in electricity-generating infrastructure were in renewables. Countries like Paraguay, Norway and Iceland are virtually 100% renewables-powered. More recently, oil-dominated economies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have made strong commitments to clean energy. The Saudi government aims for 41 gigawatts of solar generation by 2040, while Kuwait has set a goal of 10% of energy production from renewables by 2020.

And where access to electricity is most needed, renewables are making enormous strides. The Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) is an African-led plan to double renewable energy on the continent by 2020 by adding 10,000 MW of renewable energy capacity. The initiative’s second phase will target at least 300 GW of renewable energy generation by 2030.

In the excitement of COP21, many missed the announcement from EU and G7 countries that a cumulative US$10 billion would be pledged to AREI. With this financial backing from the international community, and guidance from African institutions such as the African Union, the African Ministerial Conference on the Environment, and the African Development Bank, there is now huge potential to bring clean electricity to those 600 million people on the African continent without.

As Africa moves towards sourcing more of its energy from renewable sources, innovative delivery mechanisms are also being developed on the continent. M-KOPA is a technology originating in Kenya that provides on-demand solar-generated electricity primarily to off-grid customers. Some 250,000 of these solar panel systems have been sold in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, offering low-income clients access to reliable clean electricity. The company aspires to sell one million units by 2018.

At a multilateral level, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon launched the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative in 2011 to further the aims of universal access to energy, and doubling the rates of energy efficiency and share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. The initiative is supporting the adoption of best practices and innovative solutions among stakeholders, and transparently tracking progress toward its three objectives. Dozens of partners from governments, businesses and civil society are actively engaged in this work.

This type of partnership directly complements not only Paris commitments, but also the Sustainable Development Goals adopted by nations of the world last September. In particular, by achieving SDG 7 - access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all - we can directly help achieve many of the other 16 SDGs, including improving human health, education and employment.

It is also this type of partnership that will allow us to rapidly scale up access to clean electricity. Governments have begun to set the tone that the world’s energy future will at its core be renewable. The stronger these commitments, the more investment we will see from the private sector.

Those in the private sector who have seen the signals from world leaders before and after Paris have a head-start. We are on the road to a renewables future. How fast we get there will rely on the the continuing commitments of government and the impact of business leaders who recognize the opportunity in sustainability.

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