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Nations Confab in Vienna on How to Bring Energy to All

The international talks that take place each year on climate change—stalled as they are—always get a lot of attention. There’s been less focus on an important United Nations event underway this week—Vienna Energy Forum 2011. Energy ministers and vice ministers from 40 nations are gathered in Austria to address the challenge of bringing electricity and modern, safe cooking technology to “energy-poor” people around the world. (Although there was some coverage of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger making his first post-scandal appearance to talk about his state’s efforts to cut carbon emissions.) The purpose of the forum is for nations to attempt to reach agreement on a strategy to reach the more than 1.4 billion people without electricity, as well as to reach the goal of reducing the world’s energy intensity—the amount of energy used per unit of GDP—by 40 percent by 2030. Richenda Van Leeuwen, of the UN Foundation, the nonprofit that supports the work of the United Nations, spoke about the conference by telephone from Vienna. She is senior director of the energy and climate team overseeing the UN Foundation’s work on energy access.—Marianne Lavelle

I think we’ve had a high level ministerial involvement from a whole range of countries, and a lot of coalescence around the three goals of the campaign–universal energy access by 2030, reduction of energy intensity by 40 percent and 30 percent renewable energy by 2030. Now it’s a question of what are the tangible actions that governments are going to be working on toward those three goals.

We’ve heard from the Cook Islands, where it takes four to five days to travel from one island to another—about the challenge of bringing energy to a very dispersed population. And we’ve heard from South Africa, which has already achieved 80 percent energy access, and is focusing more on delivering the last 20 percent.

There’s a very strong focus on grid electricification and how to incorporate renewable energy into the grid. But there’s a recognition that you still need to reach a very large population of poor people for whom the grid is a very long way away. So there’s a focus also on mini-grids and distributed generation. No one solution is applicable to every country context.

Clearly, there’s a focus on financing and the amount of capital required each year to reach this goal. Thirty billion in investment per year is needed. And there was discussion of the question of how much is the role of government and how much the private sector, and how much should come from consumers themselves. There are a lot of interesting perspectives on how we are going to finance this.

And, of course, the question overhanging the whole conference that we don’t have answers for is going forward, where does climate financing fit into that?

National Geographic: How can an agreement on energy access go forward when nations have not yet reached an agreement on addressing climate change?

You can turn that question around and ask, how can we agree on climate financing when energy financing for the poor hasn’t been addressed. It’s running in parallel. One of the things we’ve heard regarding COP 17 [the “Conference of the Parties,” or international climate talks scheduled for this December in Durban, South Africa] from the government of South Africa is that there’s a lot of support for highlighting the issue of addressing energy poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. Whether or not we make progress on climate in Durban, that’s going to be a platform for addressing energy poverty. We need to do both—it’s not an either-or. Bringing electricity to the more than 1.4 billion who lack access, we’re talking about a 1 to 3 percent increase in carbon dioxide emissions if it is done with fossil fuels; we’re talking about less if you use renewables. It’s a minimal question in terms of CO2, but a it’s a massive sea change in terms of helping to support economic growth and development in those countries that need it most.