Clock Is Ticking on COP 17 and Energy Poverty

The December 2011 Climate Conference (COP 17) in Durban, South Africa, presents a tremendously important opportunity to advance both the globally critical goal of climate protection, and to do so synergistically with a local agenda of sustainable development and poverty alleviation.

The COP 16 meeting in Cancun last year, while in many ways an important step forward, particularly on the role of energy efficiency, did not result in decisions on the global accord, and much remains to be done. One remedy for this situation may be to achieve local successes that demonstrate how climate protection and clean and efficient uses of energy can directly benefit the poor.

The fact that the COP will take place in Africa, which has the highest unmet need — and demand for reliable and affordable energy access — brings to a head the need to find new tools and paths that can meet both goals. As the plans for the Durban Conference evolve, there must be a premium on action that implements this strategy.

A new multi-donor program, which is part of the Climate Investment Funds and is managed by World Bank Group and Regional Development Banks, may be an ideal component of that plan: the new Scaling up Renewable Energy in Low-Income Countries (SREP) program provides an exciting avenue to meet both goals. Six pilot countries, Ethiopia, Honduras, Kenya, the Maldives, Mali and Nepal, were selected for initial blocks of funding to bring clean energy technologies rapidly to meet the unmet demand for energy. Discussions are underway to bring in funding to double this pilot group.

Last month in South Africa, I had the opportunity to see just how a program like the SREP could build on both local innovative capacity, and the political attention that COP17 can bring to climate and development needs. The World Bank office in Pretoria hosted a meeting of African Ambassadors to South Africa, where I had the opportunity to discuss with them (see picture above) both market changes taking place in the region, and technology options to rapidly bring clean energy to the poor.

Many efforts were discussed and suggested, and could qualify under the SREP. One is to catalyze further efforts to rapidly expand entrepreneurs working to make low-cost solar lanterns available that provide lighting, run radios, and charge cell phones (see my earlier blog post, (“Kenya steps ahead into a solar future”). Solar lantern programs are underway in many nations.

Sustainable household fuels — from managed woodlots and from urban waste — are also a promising means to use resources wisely and meet local needs. We are now seeing small and medium scale enterprises and industries now appearing in sub-Saharan Africa, Central and South America, and Southeast Asia. Household energy — from improved stoves, to small-scale lighting, to energy services for economic productivity at the household and village level.

At the utility scale, the development of wind farms, geothermal power, and solar power plants, as South Africa and Morocco are pursuing at utility-scale, all show great potential. Kenya is planning a 300+ MW windfarm near Lake Turkana.

As World Bank Chief Economist for Africa, Shantayanan Devarajan, recently wrote in an article on the World Bank’s Africa Strategy: “Sub-Saharan Africa in 2011 has an unprecedented opportunity for transformation and sustained growth.” Helping to ensure the right energy solutions are available for Africa to achieve this exciting prospect will be both good for climate protection and good for local development.

A vital and immediate step, in the run-up to the Durban COP, is to bring to national governments, the UN, and the multinational development agencies, and the private sector and participating NGOs, as broad a portfolio as possible of promising technologies and market tools.