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OPINION: How to fast-track least developed countries’ transition to sustainable energy

Thursday, 21 November 2019 13:45 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Investing in sustainable energy is critical to addressing the global climate emergency, of which the poorest countries suffer the gravest consequences

Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu is the UN under-secretary general and high representative for the least developed countries, landlocked developing countries, and small island developing states.

Richenda Van Leeuwen is the managing director for Empowering Clean Economies at Rocky Mountain Institute. From 2010 to 2016, she was head of Energy Access at the UN Foundation.

Development needs energy. Whether to transition to sustainable energy is no longer in question—it is simply a must if we want a sustainable future for all.

Investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions is critical to addressing the global climate emergency, of which the world’s 47 least developed countries (LDCs), suffer the gravest consequences.

We all know that access to reliable, safe energy is at the core of economic and social development. We do not lack facts of how access to electricity facilitates a range of critical development outcomes, including better health, livelihoods, and education, and gender equity.

Globally, great progress has been made toward achieving “sustainable energy for all” by 2030. However, major disparities in access remain, and we must address these inequalities urgently. Current forecasts suggest that without action, by 2030, 650 million people will be excluded from access to electricity and the benefits it brings.

India and Kenya can inspire us. There, planning around energy access, combined with investments in grid infrastructure and off-grid solar solutions, have allowed for great leaps forward.

LDCs not only face the largest energy access deficits, but also receive less attention, finance, and support. Many such countries and their people risk being left behind.

Governments, and their partners, must lead in creating policies and enabling environments that afford people access to reliable, clean energy—rather than perpetuating short-term and, ultimately, very costly traditional fossil fuel–based power infrastructure.

We now must ensure timely and streamlined access to climate finance, including support provided through the Green Climate Fund. We must invest in capacity building and technology transfer. We must invest in deeper public-private partnerships.

In the case of Malawi, an country with a population of 18 million, just 12 percent of the population has access to electricity—one of the lowest rates in the world. Even for those connected to the grid, its unreliable. Although Malawi’s CO2 emissions are tiny by international standards, its on the front lines of climate change. Low rainfall between 2016-2017 caused food shortages and lowered levels in the Shire River, which Malawi depends for most of its hydroelectric generation. As a result, the country experienced rolling blackouts. Rapid deforestation, from the ongoing use of wood and charcoal for cooking, exacerbates these challenges. Fortunately, Malawi has an abundance of renewable resources, which could enable a thriving sustainable energy sector.

Recent analysis shows that building the “right” infrastructure, in the “right” order, can help countries develop power systems at much lower costs. For Malawi, there is an opportunity to save up to $500 million by 2030 with an optimized project pipeline, compared to a business-as-usual model. A least-cost pathway laid out in a study commissioned by Malawi’s Department of Energy Affairs will keep the country’s energy supply renewable and resilient, avoiding a lock-in of power infrastructure that would increase pollution and increase operating costs.

Public funds and climate finance will account for much of the catalyst capital required, with private-sector capital leveraged and mobilized by careful utilization of public-sector funds. By implementing independently funded solar plants, Malawi and other similar countries can meet their urgent demands for power. This de-risks power investment, reduces the cost of finance, and helps future projects attract investors and developers, who will compete to provide power at a lower cost.

Governments like Malawi’s are working to attract investors, providing a range of guarantees and exchange rate protections, and implementing policies to reduce risks. The market won’t solve everything, and some subsidies will likely be needed, similar to most rural electrification program historically.

The $3 billion investment needed by 2030 to help Malawi reach “sustainable energy for all” will be backed by government and equals to half of Malawi’s annual gross domestic product. This investment is a lot of money for Malawi. However, the global economy amounts to tens of trillions of dollars, so its a small investment to secure a better tomorrow for the people of Malawi.

If Malawi and LDCs get investment planning right, they can build energy systems that power their economies and serve as engines to enable sustainable development that cuts across many of the Sustainable Development Goals, including increasing their resilience to climate change.