By Megan Rowling
BARCELONA, Jan 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Giving everyone on the planet access to electricity and other modern energy can and must be achieved earlier than a target date of 2030, because it is vital both to improve people's lives and curb climate change, said the official leading the push.
Rachel Kyte, who took over this month as CEO of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative set up by the U.N. secretary-general, said the numbers are now being crunched to work out how soon the goal of universal access could be met.
The answer is likely to be somewhere in the early 2020s, given the right circumstances, she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
There are still around 1 billion people in the world without access to electricity, and nearly 3 billion who cook using polluting fuels such as kerosene, wood and dung.
Beating the 2030 deadline to end that energy poverty - a goal enshrined in the new Sustainable Development Goals agreed in September - is essential to ensure economic growth in the future does not leave some people out, Kyte said.
Climate-changing emissions also need to be reduced faster than governments have pledged in order to keep people safe from the worst impacts of global warming. That means energy must be provided from renewable sources as far as possible, she added.
"I personally think it is outrageous that with all of the capabilities we have, we've got women who have the choice of imperilling their children's health or eating because they have no alternative but unclean cooking. Or the entrepreneur that can't employ any more people because his power is one hour on, six hours off," she said in a telephone interview.
"So yes, we're going to get this done earlier," vowed the former World Bank special envoy for climate change.
The SE4ALL initiative, now in the process of becoming an international non-profit organisation, has three goals to be met by 2030: providing universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix.
Kyte said there is urgency around these aims, particularly in the wake of December's Paris climate change agreement, which commits the world to keeping global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial times.
About 1 degree of warming has already occurred, scientists say.
In addition, people who lack access to sustainable energy need it well before 2030 if other development goals to ensure healthy lives and education for all, end hunger and provide clean water and sanitation are to become a reality by that date, Kyte said.
"You can't give birth safely if the midwife is holding a torch between her teeth," she said, citing an example used by Gro Harlem Brundtland, a former Norwegian prime minister regarded as the mother of sustainable development.
There is no internationally accepted definition of "modern energy", according to the International Energy Agency. But it identifies access as a household having a minimum level of electricity and a relatively clean, safe means of cooking.
Kyte, who is British but based in Washington DC, said the gaps in energy access around the world are well known, and power from renewable sources such as solar can now be provided cheaply in remote areas, thanks to technological advances such as "pay as you go" systems using mobile phones.
"The technology revolution is happening on its own, the policy revolution is stuck or nascent in places, and then the finance revolution has to keep up with both," she said.
There is a need to draw up "bankable projects" in regions with a modern energy deficit, such as Africa, and to provide development finance to lower risk and encourage private-sector investors on a large scale, she added.
"Lots of those pieces are now more in place than they have ever been, but everything is cyclical, and now we are starting to see a little bit of softening in demand from developing countries because of oil," she said.
As oil prices have plunged in recent months, they are denting producer governments' revenues and in turn their economies, she added.
But the drop in oil prices to around $30 per barrel is also an opportunity for governments, including wealthy ones, to phase out billions of dollars in fossil fuel subsidies, she noted.
"There is no long-term gain from having those subsidies in place. There is no reason to not do it," she said.
MONEY INTO POWER
Kyte said governments had agreed in 2015 to pursue a low-carbon future, and should push ahead despite worries around faltering growth in China and emerging markets.
"There is no uncertainty about where we are trying to get to," she said. "Figuring out how to build a framework that will support investment in the right direction is this year's work."
Development finance institutions must now work out how to find the capital they need to help countries achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, or come up with new instruments to make it happen, Kyte said.
Last week, the African Development Bank launched a "New Deal on Energy for Africa", which aims to achieve universal access to modern energy on the continent by 2025.
It plans to raise an additional $40 billion to $70 billion per year in domestic and international capital - a big increase from the $22.5 billion invested in the sector in 2014 - through new public-private partnerships.
Kyte said the challenge was to get resources to where they are needed in developing countries. Regulatory environments for utilities must be improved, while power grids are extended and made smarter.
At the same time, micro-grids and off-grid power should be expanded in rural areas, harnessing solar, wind and other clean energy sources.
"There are quite substantial amounts of money on the table, but that money has to be translated into kilowatt hours and (more) people connected really quite quickly," she said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)