José Goldemberg describes how increasing the use of renewable sources of energy is essential for sustainable development

Access to clean energy is essential for alleviating poverty and fulfilling sustainable development goals. Energy is both an engine of development and a source of many of the problems we face. Approximately four fifths of all the energy used worldwide comes from fossil fuels – and they are also the main contributors to environmental and health problems at local, regional and global levels. Meanwhile, much biomass in the form of wood and agricultural waste continues to be used in inefficient cooking stoves in rural areas – a major source of health problems, which mainly affect poor women and children. Providing alternatives to substitute for wood fuels and to support new opportunities for earning income would address the needs of more than a half billion poor people around the world.

Access to clean energy may by no means be sufficient in itself to ensure sustainable development, but it is an essential component of strategies for rural jobs, education, food, security, water supplies, urban and rural public health, local self-sufficiency and a host of other development benefits.

Reducing the consumption of fossil fuels in both industrialized and developing countries through energy efficiency measures and expanded use of ‘new renewable energy sources’ (biomass, wind, solar, small hydro and geothermal) is therefore critical.

National governments, households and private companies spend $250 billion per year on new energy supply infrastructure: $40-60 billion of this on rural electrification. Much larger sums are spent on the infrastructure that consumes energy and more than $1 trillion per year on direct energy purchases. Even small positive shifts in these investments and purchase can influence sustainable development. Governments have a wide choice of policies to affect these expenditures at both national and local levels, and in both rural and urban contexts: in practice, some have proved much better than others.
Access to clean energy is an essential component of strategies for rural jobs, education, food, security...
‘New renewable energy sources’ amount, worldwide, to 2.2 per cent of the primary energy supply, representing some $20 billion per year of energy expenditures. They include modern biomass, small hydropower, geothermal energy, wind energy, solar energy (including photovoltaics) and marine energy. ‘Modern biomass’ excludes such traditional uses of biomass as fuelwood and includes generating electricity and producing heat and liquid fuels for transportation from agricultural and forest residues and solid waste.

The advantages of new renewable energy sources over fossil fuels – which dominate the energy scene today, accounting for 81 per cent of supply in OECD countries and 70 per cent in developing countries – are well known. They:

  • enhance diversity in energy supply markets;

  • secure long-term sustainable energy supplies;

  • reduce atmospheric emissions (local, regional and global);

  • create new opportunities for employment in rural communities offering possibilities for local manufacturing;

  • enhance security of supply, since they do not require the imports that characterize supplies of fossil fuels.

Besides, renewables are a powerful instrument for reducing poverty since using them:

  • can improve access to pumped drinking water using indigenous sources: providing clean water and cooking food both reduce hunger (95 per cent of food needs cooking);

  • reduces the amount of time spent by women and children on basic survival activities, such as gathering firewood, fetching water and cooking;

  • meanwhile, lighting permits home study, increases security and enables the use of educational media and communications in school: and reduces deforestation.

The Global Environment Facility (GEF) Roundtable on Sustainable Energy, which met in January 2002 – as a parallel event to PrepCom II of the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) – recommended adopting targets and timetables to increase the contribution of renewables as one of the possible government actions:

‘Governments should adopt targets and timetables for increasing both energy efficiency and the use of renewable fuels, building on existing targets, such as the EU target of attaining 12 per cent of energy from renewables by 2010 and India’s target of attaining 10 per cent of new power generation from renewable energy by 2012. Setting of targets, along with the adoption of policies and measures, sends a strong economic and political message that can unleash the power of the market.’

A meeting of the Ministers of the Environment from Latin American and Caribbean countries, in São Paulo in May 2002 prior to PrepCom IV, adopted as a resolution a Brazilian Energy Initiative drafted as: ‘Increase in the region the use of renewable energy to 10 per cent as a share of total by 2010’ (Draft of the Final Report of the 7th Meeting of the Intersessional Committee of the Forum of Ministers of the Environment of Latin America and the Caribbean).

The Initiative proposal allows trading of ‘new renewable energy’ certificates among countries, which could reach their targets individually or jointly. The ideas proposed at the GEF Workshop therefore led to such ‘type I’ initiatives as mandatory targets and timetables for all countries being discussed at the WSSD in Johannesburg. Since such strong initiatives raised objections from oil-producing countries, a number of Type II initiatives – voluntary associations among countries to promote renewables – are also proposed: some of them are already being implemented.

Falling costs
The strongest argument against the increased use of new renewables is their high cost and consequent lack of competitiveness with conventional fuels. This was indeed the case in the past but – as is usual for most products – the cost of renewable energy falls as consumption of renewable energy increases. There is thus no question that the share of new renewable sources in world energy consumption is increasing, opening the way for a sustainable energy future

José Goldemberg is Secretary of State for the Environment of the State of São Paulo, Brazil.

PHOTOGRAPH: Joseph E. Didonato/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Unmatched opportunities | Global priority | Partnerships for change | Rising to new challenges | Much achieved, more to do | Message to the Second GEF Assembly | Africa Environment Outlook | Critical energy | Mapping the health of the planet | Regaining ground | Two to tango | Linking knowledge to action | Globalizing benefits | Unpopular POPs | Message to the Second GEF Assembly

Complementary articles in other issues:
Special supplement to coincide with the Global
Environment Facility Assembly
(Fresh Water) 1998
Issue on Energy, 2001
Gerhard Berz: Insuring against catastrophe (Disasters) 2001
Mikhail Gorbachev: Learning from disaster (Disasters) 2001
Pier Vellinga: Flip-flop to catastrophe (Disasters) 2001
Issue on Climate and Action, 1998
Issue on Climate Change, 1997

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
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AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
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