COUNTRIES around the world where the livelihoods of many people depend on fossil energy should not be deprived of the chance to develop by restricting their use of fossil fuels, Olga Algayerova, the Executive Secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE), has said. Speaking earlier this month at a UNECE ministerial conference on meeting the challenge of sustainable energy in Astana, Kazakhstan, she echoed the call made in a report by the Africa Progress Panel (APP) in March this year that urged African governments to use fossil fuels – especially the continent’s large endowment of coal – to bridge Africa’s huge energy gap.
Algayerova said: ‘We must also recognise that 80 per cent of today’s energy is fossil-based. There is no plausible scenario in which fossil’s share of energy falls below 40 per cent by 2050, even in a two-degree scenario,’ she said, referring to global warming concerns.
‘Many countries, and the livelihoods of many people, depend on fossil energy. We cannot expect them to abandon their quality of life ambitions. Our challenge is complex.’
Currently, UN regional economic commissions, including the Economic Commission for Africa, have been helping national governments to meet the objectives of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and the Paris Climate Agreement. But experts point out that there are gaps between current actions and agreed commitments to the Agenda while in the case of climate change present actions are way behind the needs that must actually be met to reach the desired outcomes.
Algayerova noted that the 50-year average temperature for each month had been rising steadily since 1964. ‘Climate change is not a new problem,’ she said. ‘We just were not aware of it.’
She added: ‘By 2050, the world’s population might reach nine billion, of whom 70 per cent will live in cities. That is the equivalent of adding 235 cities the size of greater Paris to the planet. Clearly, getting the energy system and cities right is critical.’
She pointed out that energy underpinned the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and was central to the quality of life. ‘Therefore, our objective, whatever nation we are in, is to enhance the quality of life of our citizens,’ Algayerova said.
In Africa over 600 million people lack access to electricity and the figure is rising. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who chairs the APP, said in March: ‘Africa’s energy deficit continues to stifle economic growth, job creation, agricultural transformation, and improvements in health and education. Meeting Sustainable Development Goal 7, the energy goal, is a pre-condition for achieving many of the other goals.’
He added: ‘As our report clearly states, the cost of transitioning to renewables may be prohibitively high in the short term – especially for countries that use their sizeable endowments of coal and other fossil fuels to generate energy. What we are advocating is that African governments harness every available energy option, in as cost-effective and technologically efficient manner as possible, so that no one is left behind.
‘Each country needs to decide on the most cost-effective, technologically efficient energy mix that works best for its own needs.’
At the UNECE meeting, Algayerova spoke of advanced technology that can now help reduce carbon emissions from fossil, adding: ‘…we do not have the luxury of choice in policy or technology. Every technology has an important role to play in the future energy system.
‘Not only the obvious technologies like energy efficiency and renewables, but also advanced fossil technology, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear power. Economically rational policies must guide the deployment of these technologies in service of the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement,’ she added.
‘If we optimise the management of the fossil system from source to use, we would make an extraordinary near-term contribution, not to mention improve energy security,’ Algayerova noted.
She called for countries to work together to meet the challenge presented by the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement, adding that countries were committed to both and had put together national plans. ‘We must recognise the perspectives and the drivers of the others and realise that there is not one single approach.
‘What truly matters is that the collective outcome delivers the needed results, with each player doing its part,’ Algayerova added.
It was in the same light that the APP report described the kinds of policies and investments needed to support the ambitious new public and private initiatives now under way that aim to increase energy access swiftly across Africa, especially the New Deal on Energy for Africa, spearheaded by the African Development Bank.
‘As our new report shows, where there is good leadership, there are excellent prospects for energy transition,’ Mr. Annan said. ‘We know what is needed to reduce and ultimately eliminate Africa’s energy deficit. Now we must focus on implementation. The time for excuses is over. It’s time for action.’
In Astana, Algayerova acknowledged that the energy industry ‘has succeeded in raising the quality of life around the word, most notably in the advanced economies but even in the developing world.’
She went on: ‘Yet, energy today is a commodity business in which we produce and deliver cubic metres of natural gas, litres of petrol, kilowatts of electricity, tons of coal. Energy industry players earn their returns by producing and selling more.
‘But perhaps, what is needed for true sustainability is to reinvent the energy industry as a service industry, or as a complex of service industries, to unleash energy productivity.’