Politics of Poverty

One SDG to rule them all?

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Make-shift solar panels charge up mobile phones in Burkina Faso. (Photo: Andy Hall/Oxfam Great Britain)

There are 17 Global Goals in all, but Goal 7 – affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy for all – might have the most riding on it.

After years in the making, the next evolution of the Millennium Development Goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were launched at the UN General Assembly over the weekend. And though some progress was made under the MDGs, these new goals are an important reboot, as they bring new threats, challenges and opportunities into the equation for ending poverty, hunger, and injustice around the world.

The goals outline a huge task, in both scope and the resources needed. And it is obvious how big a task it is given that they narrowed it down to an incredible 17 goals (up from just 8 MDGs), which try to cover all aspects of getting to a more just, prosperous and peaceful world. Each goal is important and deserves its place and focus. However there is one goal – Goal 7 – that stands out. Goal 7 calls for ‘affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy for all’; and if you think about it, it may be the achievement of this goal that impacts the other goals the most. And if that’s the case, isn’t it critical to get it right?

First off, I’m certainly not advocating that any goal is more important than the others. There are arguments that can be made for each goal in terms of its importance and interconnectedness to the others. Education, for instance, is in many ways the silver bullet in addressing many of the challenges we face; universal health care is a basic human right that also has huge implications on domestic budgets; and the fact that everyone in the world is still not guaranteed enough to eat, and eat well, is criminal. All this while inequality and climate change threaten progress on just about everything else.

So it’s plain to see that a holistic approach, like the one enshrined in the goals, is needed.

However, sustainable energy access is particularly important given the implications it has on all of the other goals – for example,  its necessity for providing lighting for schools and in homes for kids  to do homework, cold-chains for medical supplies, or irrigation for agriculture, to name a few.

All that to say, there is a lot riding on getting energy access right. Here are a couple of things I’d recommend to make sure that happens:

  1. Ensure energy access benefits the poor and doesn’t worsen inequality.

Ensuring sustainable energy for all, speaks to the heart of reducing inequality, but there are right and wrong ways to do it.  Our research has shown that energy interventions implemented in the name of fighting energy poverty by focusing exclusively on centralized energy needs, often primarily serve industry or wealthy sections of the populations. This means very little of this expanded access in these cases actually benefit the poor, and hence exacerbate inequality. Additionally, the IMF has been putting out information for years now on the regressive nature of global energy subsidies. Ensuring equality in how energy resources are consumed, accessed, and priced for the poorest in both urban and rural settings, is critically important to helping reduce inequality. The knock-on effect for all the other goals impacted by such energy inequality could be significant. The related provision of essential services, agriculture, gender equality, will all be detrimentally affected if energy is not prioritized for the poorest.

  1. Make renewables the focus for expanding energy access and fighting climate change

The world has a very limited amount of carbon space left before we see the irreversible global consequences of not addressing climate change. Inaction now will have huge implications on our ability to meet any of the SGDs. Yet, solving energy access and climate change together is more than just increasing the amount of energy available. The type of energy matters. This is evidenced by the energy sector being one of the greatest contributors to climate change – taking credit for two thirds of global emissions. There’s little chance of meeting our climate and development agendas if the energy sector does not decarbonize while expanding to those who need it.

The good news is that we have clean energy options. And contrary to popular belief, they shouldn’t be a hard sell. Renewables are now the cheapest form of electricity – yes, that’s right – and they can also meet most of the energy poor’s needs, without causing the additional harm we’d expect from traditional fossil fuels.

It just goes to show that the world can, in fact, meet the energy needs of the poor without cooking the planet, widening inequality and jeopardizing all of our other shared development goals, however ambition must be raised on all fronts. Presently energy financing is skewed towards less climate-resilient, and less pro-poor technologies, and the needed low carbon interventions being put on the table, are woefully inadequate to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Energy investments also arguably have some of the most development dollars being thrown at it right now. Whether it’s the billions committed to the Obama Administration’s Power Africa initiative, the G20 ministerial on energy access occurring later this week, or the newly launched development banks which will likely have strong mandates to work on energy infrastructure.

Getting energy access right by prioritizing financing for clean energy can make all the other goals, especially those on inequality and climate change, that much easier. And such prioritization needs to be the focus in critical upcoming meetings like the G20 this week, the climate negotiations in Paris later this year, and in the years ahead as we aim to turn the laudable global goals into reality.

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