Big voluntary commitments to Sustainable Energy For All ( #SE4All ) at #Rioplus20

Smriti Mallapaty
Freelance journalist from Nepal, SciDev.Net

It was only ‘noted’ in the final outcome document of Rio+20, but the Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative was applauded on the sidelines.

Billions of dollars have been promised to make energy accessible to all
Flickr/Good Neighbors

At the final press conference and three-hour side event following it on 21 June, commitments to universal energy access, and to doubling both efficiency and the share of renewables by 2030 rained down on a packed room.

Over the last nine months, and culminating at Rio, the initiative has collected commitments that, if honoured, will deliver energy access to more than a billion people, mostly in developing countries, and private investment worth over US$50 billion towards all the three targets.

Some countries have made financial pledges, and others have agreed to regulatory reforms. For example, the US will leverage US$2 billion in grants, loans and loan guarantees for clean technology, and Norway guaranteed $140 million to projects in Ethiopia, Kenya and Liberia.

50 states from Africa, Asia, Latin America, and including small island developing states, have signed up to develop energy plans and programmes that would attract investment, some even setting themselves energy targets (Barbados is aiming for 29 percent renewable use by 2029).

A quick skim of the list (see the Cloud of Commitments online reveals that these are mostly an assortment of private sector commitments.

Large financial institutions and banks pledged to finance projects, like Bank of America ($35 billion for energy), and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development ($8 billion for projects in Eastern Europe and Central Asia).

Major companies assured steps towards reducing their own carbon emissions, including Microsoft (carbon neutral by 2013), Nike, Inc. (reducing CO2 emissions by 20 percent in five years), and Unilever (halve environmental impact of products). Some focused on education, like the U.A.E.’s Masdar High School Prize, and GDF Suez’s promotion of social entrepreneurs. And some simply vowed to continue ongoing work, like Statoil’s ‘no production flaring’ policy. The list also includes plans to set up a Clean Energy Finance University, share modelling tools and create jobs.

“This could be the biggest public private partnership of all time,” proclaimed Chad Holliday, chairman of the board of directors of Bank of America and co-chair of the SE4All’s High-Level Group, describing a “new approach of business and government working together for the common good.”

But given their voluntary nature, the challenge following Rio+20 would be to “track those commitments,” said Kandeh Yumkellah, director-general of the UN Industrial and Development Organization and co-chair of the High-level Group. Besides an open-access tracker, the initiative also plans to establish a baseline (set at 2012) and indicators for all three energy targets, similar the Human Development Index.

Some of the initiative’s success with the private sector can be attributed to the fact that renewable energy has become more competitive over the last 20 years. “The time is right for heavy investment in renewables,” said José Goldemberg, Brazilian expert on energy and environment. But “private sector commitment is the least you could ask for,” he added, referring to the failure of governments to commit to any quantitative energy targets in the final outcome document.

So while prize-worthy, the SE4All’s achievements feel more like “a consolation prize.”

This blog post is part of our coverage of Rio+20: United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. To read news and analysis on Science at Rio+20 please visit our website.

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