Rachel Kyte, chief executive and U.N. special representative at Sustainable Energy for All. Photo by: Ryan Rayburn / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

The world can’t tackle climate change without also addressing the fact that 1.1 billion people still lack access to energy.

Much of the discussion at the Marrakech climate talks has focused on building the energy systems of the future. If those systems are to meet both goals — connecting everyone in the world to energy and also preventing runaway climate change — it will take rigor and discipline to see them realized.

Devex spoke with Rachel Kyte, the chief executive and U.N. special representative at Sustainable Energy for All, on the sidelines of the 22nd Conference of Parties to the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. Kyte said she is optimistic climate action and energy access can proceed in tandem. She outlined how to overcome vested interests and pointed out what still gets neglected in the conversation about our global energy future.

“We have to throw away all our romantic sense of everybody being equal and everybody’s initiative being wonderful,” Kyte said.

Here’s the transcript of our interview, edited for length and clarity:

Some people might be tempted to view energy access as antithetical to the goals of climate change emissions reductions. Why are you optimistic that we can both achieve energy access goals and avoid sending emissions levels skyrocketing?

If we have an economic proposition for the next few decades — that we’re going to have a cleaner world but the bottom rung of that world are not going to have access to energy — that’s a nonsaleable proposition. It’s deeply unjust, and that’s not what we came to agree last year. In the runup to Paris you heard lots of pontificating that we couldn’t get the 1.1 billion access to energy because it was going to blow emissions through the roof. That’s not true. Even if you gave the 1.1 billion who don’t have access to energy access to coal tomorrow, it’s going to be an infinitesimally small part in global emissions. But coal is not the right answer. A. it’s not the cheapest; and B. it’s deleterious to the health and to the economic well-being of the communities that you would put it in.

But we are saved, in some respects, by our current understanding of what’s possible in renewable energy. The prices have plummeted, and that means that for much less money, we can, through different business models, both off-grid and grid-connected, get cleaner energy out to more people. But we are also saved by our understanding of energy efficiency on the demand side, in that we can have a new generation of appliances and devices that use much less energy. So the amount of energy we actually need to get to households and businesses to be productive is less, and that can be done more and more through renewables because they are now the cheapest option and there are new business models emerging.

Of all of the [Sustainable Development Goals], this is one that’s doable, affordable, [and] needs to be front-loaded — because we can’t wait until 2030 to have sustainable energy access for everybody. You’re not going to get good quality health care, good quality education if you don’t have access to energy. And if we don’t make a huge step forward in the energy revolution, then the transport revolution, and the manufacturing revolution and the sustainable industrialization which has to happen within this decarbonizing world aren’t going to happen quickly enough either.

If this transition isn’t just, then it’s just not sellable at the ballot box the world over. People have to believe that they’re going to be better off in a cleaner world, and people have to believe that the future economy’s going to serve them better than the one of the past.

One of the messages of this COP seems to be: the world is moving towards a low-carbon economy. That’s the prevailing trend. Renewables have proven themselves to be commercially viable. I can’t believe it’s the case that you would say we can sit back and let the renewable revolution happen on its own. From your perspective, where are the places where we still need to push back? Where are the remaining sticky issues?

We have a reasonable inert energy system with lots of incumbents. For 150 years we’ve been building a centralized energy system, which is powered by fossil fuels. Deconstructing that is not easy. You’re going up against vested interests in terms of where the power’s generated. You’re going up against vested interests in terms of the ministers and institutions that managed all of that. And you’re going up against a generation of people who grew up and were trained to run that kind of system. So, we’re under no illusions that we have to unpick that while we build this new system.

The new system is integrated. It’s more distributed, and it’s cleaner. That really is a transition, and that means that you’ve got to get your energy prices right. You’ve got to get rid of the harmful subsidies, you’ve got to work out what you want to subsidize and incentivize, and you've got to run that through parliaments and through governments and all of that.

The second thing is energy efficiency. Forty percent of the emissions that need to be reduced can be achieved through energy efficiency. But we’re not doing that. There are large parts of the world where there are huge improvements, and there are large parts of the world where the improvement in energy efficiency is nowhere near on track. If we swapped out the truck fleets and the bus fleet of South Asia and Southeast Asia alone, that would have a huge impact in energy efficiency. If we set the next generation of efficiency standards for vehicles and really, really pushed where we technologically know we can go, we would start to have really big impacts.

It’s not happening for a reason — that is that people aren’t focused, it’s dealing with incumbency. It requires political will. It’s not sexy. But that’s where we’ve really got to drive this while the renewables revolution is going on. This is ushering in the era of hard work, sleeves rolled up, deals to be done, standards setting, public policy, all the unfashionable things that have to happen to make things go quicker.

Can you say a bit about your role in encouraging this variety of actors to step up and do that?

Think about SE4ALL as this massive sandpit, where the public sector and the private sector can come and play and get themselves really focused on what needs to be done. There are certain countries where the public-private dialogue around energy intensity is not as robust as it needs to be. There are conversations, where if we brought different companies from different parts of the world into the debate, it would be really catalytic. There are issues, countries, business models, where conversations are just not happening.

First of all, we put the evidence down in front of everybody. We benchmark everybody. And then we try to convene the conversations that aren’t happening, between the actors who are not talking to each other, and support leaders to actually start moving forward. We’re your favorite aunt with elbows. We’re here to nudge everybody to get going and get going quickly … We’re the international energy aunt with elbows. My press people are going to kill me for that.

We see how much is going on, but it’s points of light at the moment. The question is how do you connect those points of light so you get speed and scale? … The renewable energy world exists. The energy efficiency world is sort of unloved in another corner, and then the people who are trying to say, “access, access, access.” The three feed off each other, and our job is to constantly show how they all link together.

Is there as much excitement about reaching people with energy access as there is about transitioning industry into renewables? Are there parts of this that are getting neglected?

Yes and no. Internationally we tend to gravitate towards the three or four renewable energy companies that are doing great things, and we always cite the same five or six deals that are just remarkable, and then we forget all the rest of it. The difficult things — the public policy that is required for those to succeed gets less talked about. Energy efficiency gets less talked about. Clean cooking — always really difficult — gets less talked about.

What I’m seeing now is real enthusiasm and innovation at the community and at the business level. For a community that is suffering from high energy prices in the northwest of England, for example, to organize itself to improve the energy efficiency of the social housing, so that they can afford to switch on the electricity that they need to stay warm and to cook, that innovation exists and those things are happening. Communities in the United States that are ill-served by the grid and know that they can get cheaper and more reliable energy by going off grid and just doing it, irrespective of what the utility says and irrespective of what Washington says. This is testament to the fact that this is a global issue and that that innovation exists at the local level. One of the messages that we bring to governments based on the evidence is that if you let the off-grid distributed sector fly, it will solve your problems much more quickly than just going through grid connections.

I was just in India where the Indian government has set these remarkably ambitious targets: 2025, everybody has electricity, massive targets for solar, closing the cooking gap in just the next few years. I was out in villages in the Gujarat on the edge of the desert and I was going to village to village, household to household, and these women now have multiple cooking solutions. The government has changed the subsidy from kerosene to LPG … They’re ramping up clean gas cooking, cleaner cooking. These villages are also served by microfinance and support through the self-employed women’s association, so they’ve got eco-stoves, which take much less wood, and then they have their traditional mud stove, and they have their traditional kerosene stove.

Now they’ve got all these options, what are they actually doing, because then that informs how you really penetrate that market. So, people use the mud stove to cook the bread, the roti, because it tastes better and they get a better consistency. They use the gas because it’s cheaper and it’s quicker, which frees up their time. They don’t use the kerosene because that’s expensive — it’s no longer subsidized. Maybe they use the eco-stove to complement the gas.

You have to understand what those women are choosing to do and why they’re choosing to do it. Once you do, that’s a market of hundreds of millions of women who are going to make new purchasing decisions, new energy purchasing decisions. They’re going to want more devices to be working off the gas. When the grid arrives they’re going to want all kinds of devices to work off the solar grid they’re going to be connected to. This is an extraordinary opportunity, and really understanding how exciting that is, and how sophisticated those who are unserved by energy really are — we tend to think that … they’re poor and therefore we just have to give them a lamp and a cellphone charger. No.

These are villages that once they are electrified and once they have clean cooking are going to be starting new businesses. They’re going to be having better health care. They’re going to be having schools with lights on so kids can stay in school longer. The productive demand that is going to be released is extraordinary. And I think that’s the message of business opportunity as well as emissions reductions. It is one of the good news story of a cleaner future. Nothing that’s happened in the last few days changes that.

As someone working on energy access, where does your responsibility end? Is it in knowing that that productive capacity you’re talking about has been met — are you following through on the development potential of energy access? Or, does your work stop at achieving access, and then someone else picks it up to see what energy access means for development outcomes?

This isn’t about giving everybody a lamp. It’s about creating a market where energy solutions are provided for households and businesses in every part of the world. We’re not going to rest until you can set up a business in a small town in northern Kenya and you can run it knowing that you’ve got reliable, affordable, clean energy for the hours that you need to run that business. That’s going to be critical for sustainable agriculture, because that’s how you’re going to get your solar water pump that allows you to have drop for crop irrigation. It’s all interconnected.

I also think it’s going to be the liberation of cities — current and future — because they are going to need to have resilient energy systems, which means they’re going to have a mixture of grid and off grid. It’s going to have to be clean. Otherwise you’re not going to be able to breath in the streets, just as we’ve seen in Delhi and [Los Angeles] and places like that now. I do think this cleaner energy future is a way for everybody to get access to productive levels of energy. But it’s also a way to think about a different way of living for those who already have energy.

We have to see this as creative disruption for everybody. It’s not just for those who do not have access to energy.

Devex Senior Correspondent Michael Igoe is reporting live from COP22 in Morocco this week. Stay tuned to Devex and follow him @AlterIgoe for on-the-ground coverage.

About the author

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    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.