In the Future We Want there is access to sustainable energy for all

The high-level segment of the Earth Summit in Rio has started. Unfortunately, the urge to deliver a final text has led to an across-the-board loss of meaningful proposals.  Governments but especially civil society are very concerned that the Rio+20 outcomes will not only lack ambition but remains far behind of what is needed to save our planet.  Experts ask: is it destined to fail the world? And 17-year old Brittany Trilford asks delegates in her speech: Will you save face, or save us? But there is good news that is hardly told to the outside world: there is an inspiring, engaging and passionate spirit in most side events here in Rio.

Especially energy and access to sustainable energy in the global South is a key topic on the agenda. In several workshops, panel discussions and roundtables governmental representatives, civil society organisations and private sector discuss concrete solutions, constructive proposals and success stories that can provide great starting points for many places around the globe. Kandeh Yumkella, UN-Energy Chair and Co-Chair of the High-Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All claimed at a side event hosted by the UN Foundation last Monday that “access to energy actually means energy revolution. And we cannot solve our global problems without this energy revolution.”

Renewable energy is the most applicable type of energy for energy access. Only an energy model that is based on renewable energies addresses the twin challenges of climate change and energy poverty while balancing global energy use. It is great to see that access to energy is on the international political agenda. However, debates here in Rio show what is really at the heart of the debate: The deployment of renewable energies is can be a tool to not only decentralize but through that democratize the energy market. And that is what monopolies fear and fight.

On top of the economic and environmental benefits of decentralised energy production it allows the population to be independent market participants. Many participants from various parts of the world expressed frustration about national policies in fact benefiting the existing energy companies. Although community-controlled systems are often the least-cost and most effective and fastest way to deliver clean, safe, reliable and affordable energy. This is true for industrialised, emerging and developing countries

At the Clean Energy Symposium hosted by Amazon Watch and others experts discussed possible pathways for Brazil’s energy policy. It became clear that there is a high potential for Brazil to build a sustainable future-just energy market. Even Brazil already has a high share of renewable energies in their energy mix one can question its sustainability. Stefan Schurig from the World Future Council was one of the speakers and claimed that there is a need for decentralized, community power solutions rather than new huge hydro dams. This is the only option to unleash the uptake of renewables in Brazil and ensure local development throughout the whole country.

But this needs a national political framework to enable people to participate in and drive this development. Only through financially, technically and institutionally supporting national policies that are designed with people’s total energy needs in mind we can achieve the energy revolution. Feed-in tariffs (FiTs) is such a policy. FiTs is the fasted way to unleash renewable energy production in the industrialised world and the global South. It is the best policy to expand energy access and tackle climate change at the quickest pace. However, the devil lays in the detail and design as well as ways of implementation are the rate limiting factors. South Africa is the best example for that.

Especially talking about access to energy in the Global South FiTs needs to be designed along the principles of justice, fairness, open to all and people driven instead of by monopolies. Feed in tariffs have the transformation potential to a decentralised democratically balanced energy sector. By including local capacity building along the whole supply chain it underpins local development. Africa and other developing countries were too long the receiver of imports. We need to make sure that in this energy revolution skills development, capacity building and support for local manufacturing come first.

At the Energy Day at Fair Ideas the World Future Council together with various partners – among them Friends of the Earth and IIED – hosted a workshop specifically on FiTs in the Global South. One of the key messages from this workshop is that FiTs do not necessarily require grid connection. They can include off grid energy production and mini grid solution. However, Mae Buenaventura, Jubilee South (Asia and Pacific)/ Freedom from Debt Coalition, Philippines stressed that it is from upmost importance that this policy is designed with people in mind. She claims that energy is not a good for profit and we need a FiT programme that follows this rational. Mae therefore calls for the So-FiT (Social Feed-in tariff).

Discussions here in Rio stress once again that financing FiTs in the global South is key. An Ethiopian representative put it that way: “Result-based financing is needed after putting the right policies in place.” Speakers like Tariq Banuri, former head of division of sustainable development in the UN underlined that a Global FiT-Fund is a constructive proposal that can help many countries to overcome barriers and unlock domestic resources. Several proposals are out there to show where the money can come from. Delegates keep mentioning the need for innovative funding mechanisms and the importance of engaging with the private sector. However, remarkable enough also Michael Liebrich, CEO of Bloomberg stressed that “policy comes first. Markets will follow.” Michelle Pressend, from Economic Justice Network, South Africa described the role of the private sector that way: “Private sector has to produce the products. But governments have to facilitate this shift in technologies with the right political framework. We fail to have access to sustainable energy for all if it is up to market demand and supply. We have to reclaim energy as a public good.”

Stakeholders among all sectors see great potential in the Sustainable Energy for All (SEFA) initiative of Ban-Ki Moon. At the Energy Day hosted by the UN delegates from Zambia, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Ghana and Brazil acknowledge the efforts made and commit to work on national action plans together with the international community. However, there is an urgent need for civil society to step in here. Whereas governments have to put policies in place that facilitate development, civil society has to advocate for people’s need and articulate concerns of those who are left out of the decision-making processes: billions of people without access to energy.

Pascoe Sabido from Friends of the Earth stressed that existing initiatives such as the Sustainable Energy for All (SEFA) need to stimulate national FiTs policies. With the right national framework that is designed along key principles like accountability, people’s right to access the full range of energy services, fair and just tariff design as well as ensuring local development through capacity building, SEFA can actually facilitate the energy revolution.

However, the key question remains: Are policy-makers convinced that theywant to deal with distributed actors in the energy sector? Following the discussions here in Rio and observing the political debate in Europe, especially Germany at the moment, I believe that there is a lot of work for us ahead. As Grace Alice Mukasa from Practical Action, Kenya put it in one of the side events: “We need to mobilize a critical mass to hold policy-makers to account.” Are you ready for that?

Thursday, June 21st, 2012