Sustainable development is not possible without sustainable energy

In June, leaders from around the world will gather in Rio de Janeiro to explore ways that governments, the private sector and global institutions can promote sustainable development. For me, the starting point is clear: Energy is essential for development, and sustainable energy is essential for sustainable development.

It may come as a surprise that one in five people in today’s high-tech world do not have access to electricity. Twice that many, nearly three billion, rely on wood, charcoal or animal waste for cooking and heating. For developing countries, energy poverty is an enormous impediment to economic progress.

For industrialized countries, the energy challenge is different — a problem of waste and pollution, not shortage. Inefficient energy use harms both our economic productivity and contributes to the dangerous warming of our planet.

Earlier this year, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took on this issue and 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.

Development is central to the United Nation’s mission, and access to modern energy services is critical to reaching the Millennium Development Goals — whether in health care, education or poverty reduction, or to produce more food or clean water. Energy powers growth. The lack of energy inhibits it.

To deliver sustainable energy for all, government action is necessary but not sufficient. A partnership with the private sector is also required. Development assistance will never be large enough to deliver the many billions of dollars of new investment that will be needed. What the United Nations can do is bring the right set of parties to the table to agree on sound policies that encourage flow of capital. That means engaging all stakeholders.

For example: Governments are responsible for enacting policies that expand energy access, and for regulatory regimes that encourage new investment. Companies should invest in research and innovation, and create new energy products, services and markets that can deliver solutions on the needed scale. Companies can also work to improve efficiency and adopt renewable energy in their own business operations and supply chains. Finally, civil society groups can contribute fresh ideas, provide technical support, advocate for sound policies and help deliver solutions on the ground.

This partnership model is a central theme of the secretary-general’s initiative. At the Rio summit in June, major commitments to action will be announced by both governments and businesses, demonstrating early progress. The event will launch a sustained international effort to address this urgent development need, one that has been neglected for too long.

This is a unique moment. Energy is a top-drawer item for both business and government, and the secretary-general has identified the right agenda. Achieving sustainable energy for all will require an investment in our collective future — an investment 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.

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About the author

  • Kandeh Yumkella

    Kandeh K. Yumkella is the director-general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization and co-chair of the secretary-general's High Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All. He is also a member of the Rio+20 Principals Group as well as the United Nations Development Group, and chairs U.N.-Energy as well as the U.N. secretary-general's Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change.