How can renewable energy help achieving the Sustainable Development Goals?


Sustainable development is an approach to development that takes the finite resources of the Earth into consideration and hereby respects the planetary boundaries. This week in New York, governments gather at the UN General Assembly to present 17 goals which should guide the right pathway to sustainable development. The so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) have been developed in a three-year process by national governments building on the expertise of international organizations and civil society groups.

One of these goals – SDG Seven – urges policy makers to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. Governments intent to achieve this by 2030 by increasing substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix as well as double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency. While this is the only goal that explicitly addresses the energy sector and mentions renewable energy as a mean to achieve it, I in fact argue that generating energy from sun, wind, tides and fast water streams is also crucial to achieve the other SDGs. This is particularly the case for sustainable industrialization, fostering innovation (SDG Nine), reduction of inequalities (SDG 10), ending poverty (SDG One), and sustainable economic growth (SDG Eight). However, this is only the case, if we are going beyond replacing fossil resources in today’s energy system with renewable sources and fueling the same system with different resources. Renewable energy technologies have the potential to spur sustainable development if implementation follows the principles of revenue sharing, diversity, equality and decentralization.

What makes renewable energy sustainable?

Generally, the sustainability of renewable energy technology is defined by their reliance upon infinitely available resources that are naturally occurring, constant and free to access. These factors mean that these resources will be indefinitely accessible by humans, which makes them sustainable resources.

The fight against climate change and the challenge of creating wealth without greenhouse gas emissions has been one of the major drivers for renewable energies development worldwide. Most of the known fossil resource reserves cannot be exploited if the global temperature rise is to be kept under the 2C safety limit agreed by the world’s nations. Alternative energy sources are therefore urgently needed. As renewable energy technologies are market-ready and in most places economically competitive with conventional energy sources, governments across the world have initiated far-reaching structural changes in the energy market, scaling up the deployment of renewable energy.

However, sustainable development does not only refer to environmental issues. In fact, it must be based on an economy which does not destroy our ecosystem much faster than it can regenerate, and should also be an instrument to wealth redistribution and creation of social well-being. Environment, economy and society are the three spheres of sustainable development since the UN Earth Summit on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

And in fact, when analyzing the intentions that drive cities, regions and nations to embark on the journey towards 100% Renewable Energy, economic and social benefits are the main drivers. Governments, especially islands, cities and regions increasingly scale up renewable energy to harvest opportunities of local development and socio-economic value creation. Governments are investing in renewables to help reduce their reliance on fossil fuel imports and to boost its energy independence. High costs for energy imports, subsidies and the risk of price volatility often hinder sustainable development. Instead of paying energy bills to external providers, decentralized renewable energy allows the money to stay in the local economy and create local demand for jobs. Further, in many cases the tax revenues from renewable energy projects can help support vital public services, especially in rural communities where projects are often located.

In countries with an unreliable and unequal energy infrastructure, renewable energy increasingly help to provide stable energy to rural areas, especially where communities are off grid and may be more dependent on solid fuels for energy. Since almost 3 billion people suffer from both, erratic or no access to electricity and reliance on inefficient and polluting solid biomass fuels for cooking, 100% reliable, affordable and efficiently used renewables are the preferred options for a more decent livelihood of the deprived. Access to sustainable, affordable and reliable energy is a pre-condition for poverty eradication and sustainable development.

While case studies from around the world prove this right, there are many examples that disregard the element of wealth redistribution and creation of social well-being in renewable energy investments. A sustainable approach to reach 100% RE is therefore more than replacing fossil resources in today’s energy system with renewable sources and fueling the same system with different resources. Instead, in sustainable 100% RE societies and economies ensure reliable, secure, and affordable access to renewable energy for all. In that sense, the 100% RE approach can serve as a means to socioeconomic development and help create an equitable society.

The need for sustainability criteria for Renewable Energy

With the international community starting to implement the new Post-2015 Development Agenda with the Sustainable Development Goals in its center, I see the urgent need for standards and indicators that allow measuring and assessing policies and implementation and hereby provide some guidance on what a sustainable transition to 100% RE entails.

Therefore members of the Global 100% RE campaign have initiated a consultation process to develop criteria and indicators that guide policy makers on how to reach a sustainable 100% RE vision. The overall goal is to define sustainability criteria for 100% RE in local governments and hereby creating the first label for local government`s action in this field. This will help to monitor and assess implementation toward 100% RE. A discussion paper that outlines some first proposals and thinking will be published in the coming weeks. A global network of 100% RE regions and cities has been established that brings those local governments together who commit to these criteria and hereby inspire by example.

If you are interested in engaging in this process, please get in touch with Anna Leidreiter at the World Future Council

Friday, September 25th, 2015