Sustainable Development is Not Possible Without
Tim Wirth, UN Foundation, June 8 2012
In rural villages in East Africa, nearly 150 women
entrepreneurs are selling solar lamps and cell phone chargers that provide
clean and reliable lighting and connectivity to remote and energy-poor
communities. These women, empowered by the social enterprise Solar Sister, are
the ground troops of social and economic development.
On June 20,
world leaders will gather in Brazil for Rio+20, the UN Conference on
Sustainable Development. Their mission is to set a development agenda for
the next 20 years. As shown by groups like Solar Sister, the starting point for
such an agenda should be clear: Energy is essential for development, and
sustainable energy is essential for sustainable development.
Even in today's modern world, one in five people do not have access to
electricity. Their daily reality is life without light or refrigeration,
without energy for water pumping or computers. Twice as many people, nearly
three billion, still rely on wood, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and
heating, breathing in smoke that harms their lungs, killing nearly 2 million
people a year. This energy poverty is an enormous impediment to economic
In industrialized countries, the energy challenge is different – a problem of
waste and pollution, not shortage. Inefficient energy use harms economic
productivity. Emissions from fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, foul the
air and are causing the planet's climate to change. But rapidly falling costs
for renewable energy technologies are now making them the cheapest choice in
many parts of the world, and more than $260 billion was invested globally in
clean energy last year.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has set out three intertwined energy objectives
for the world to achieve by 2030: ensuring universal access to modern energy
services, doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and
doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. These are ambitious objectives, but
they are also achievable.
Development is central to the United Nations' mandate, and now this global
institution is advancing energy as critical to achieving development goals,
whether in health care, education or poverty reduction, or to produce more food
or clean water.
To deliver sustainable energy for all,
government action is necessary but not sufficient. Development assistance from
governments will never be enough to deliver the new investment that is needed.
And businesses won't invest where there is not an opportunity for profit.
is the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and
environmental sustainability." -
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
The UN is
bringing both parties to the table to agree on sound policies that can unleash
the flow of capital: Governments can enact policies and regulations that expand
energy access and encourage private investment. Companies can invest in
research and create new energy products, services and markets that will deliver
solutions on the needed scale. They can also improve efficiency and adopt
renewable energy in their global business operations and supply chains.
Investors can provide funding for clean technologies and help scale up successful
At the Rio summit, governments, businesses, and non-profit groups will
announce their commitments to action on Sustainable Energy for All,
demonstrating early progress – a "down payment" toward transforming
the world's energy systems over the next 20 years. This is a unique moment.
National leaders, corporate executives, and now the UN have put energy at the
top of the global agenda.
Achieving sustainable energy for all will require a significant investment in
our collective future – but one that will pay off by improving lives, growing
businesses, creating new markets, and generating jobs. And by using energy more
efficiently and investing in renewable energy sources, we can build the clean
energy economy of the future we want.
Timothy E. Wirth is President of the Better World Fund and the
United Nations Foundation. He previously served in the U.S. House and Senate
and as the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs.
Information on the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All campaign: