As a child growing up during the Korean War, I studied by candlelight. Electric conveniences such as refrigerators and fans were largely unknown. Yet within my lifetime, that reality changed utterly. Easy access to energy opened abundant new possibilities for my family and my nation.
Energy transforms lives, businesses and economies. And it transforms our planet – its climate, natural resources and ecosystems. There can be no development without energy. Today we have an opportunity to turn on the heat and lights for every household in the world, however poor, even as we turn down the global thermostat. The key is to provide sustainable energy for all.
To succeed, we need everyone at the table – governments, the private sector and civil society – all working together to accomplish what none can do alone. The United Nations is well-placed to convene this broad swathe of actors and forge common cause between them. That is why I have established our new initiative, Sustainable Energy for All. Our mission: to galvanize immediate action that can deliver real results for people and the planet.
This is the message I will bring to the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi starting Monday. As I see it, we face two urgent energy challenges.
The first is that one in five people on the planet lacks access to electricity. 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.
The second challenge is climate change. Greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels contribute directly to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, with all the attendant consequences: a rising incidence of extreme weather and natural disasters that jeopardize lives, livelihoods and our children’s future.
Sustainable energy for all by 2030 is an enormous challenge. But it is achievable. My vision is for a world with universal energy access coupled with significantly improved rates of energy efficiency and a doubling of renewable energy in our mix of fuel sources. The obstacles are not so much technical as human. We need to raise sustainable energy to the top of the global agenda and focus our attention, ingenuity, resources, and investments to make it a reality.
Consider the precedent of cellular phones. Twenty years ago, universal access to mobile communications seemed preposterous. Yet as governments put proper frameworks in place and the private sector invested resources and pioneered business models, the communications revolution exploded.
A similar paradigm can emerge in sustainable energy. Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options in favor of cleaner energy solutions, just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks. Industrialized countries can and should support this transition to low-emission technologies, not least through their own example.
This is the right thing to do to reduce poverty and protect our planet. It also happens to be the smart thing to do for expanding business opportunities in the world’s fastest growing marketplaces. Mobilizing private capital is essential, particularly at a time when public budgets are under strain.
With the right policy frameworks in place, the return on investment can be enormous: increased productivity and growth, job generation, included for grass-roots entrepreneurs, improved public health, enhanced energy security and a more stable climate.
Over the past five years the renewable energy industry has experienced tremendous growth. Capacity is expanding. Performance is improving. Prices are declining. New products are emerging that require less energy. This is a solid foundation upon which to build the next great energy transition.
At least 118 countries have set policy targets or created supportive renewable energy policies. Yet we can, and must, do more. In the lead up to Rio conference on sustainable development, I am urging governments, the private sector and other stakeholders to make concrete commitments that drive action on the ground.
Governments can advance more ambitious national energy plans and targets, provide financial support, and moderate perverse tariffs. Companies can make operations and supply chains more energy-efficient and form public-private partnerships that expand sustainable energy products. Investors can provide seed money for clean technologies. Governments, industry and academia can all contribute new research.
Some argue that in times of economic uncertainty, sustainability is a luxury we cannot afford. I say that we cannot afford to wait. Science and economics reach the same conclusion: advancing economic growth, lifting people out of poverty and protecting our planet are all part of the same agenda: the sustainable development agenda. What connects them is energy. Sustainable energy for all is an idea whose time has come. Turning ideas into action depends on us all.
Ban Ki-moon is secretary general of the United Nations.