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Powering the future

How a clean energy world must also tackle poverty and inequality

By United Nations Development Programme

The clean energy revolution has begun. How quickly and fairly it happens, and who will benefit from it, is the greatest challenge of our time.

Dirty energy is the leading cause of the climate crisis. And as the most recent IPCC report has warned, climate change is rapid, widespread, and we have just a handful of years left to make lasting, truly revolutionary change.

What we do next will shape the destinies of generations to come. The right actions have at their core our sheer survival—from global food and water security to avoiding the millions of deaths every year from dirty fuel in all its forms.

They must also be just and fair, improve the lives of the most vulnerable and meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

It’s time to go big and bold. The High-Level Dialogue on Energy, the first United Nations global energy summit in 40 years, is a historic opportunity to achieve clean energy for all by 2030 and launch the energy transition aimed at net-zero emissions by 2050.

But a revolution cannot happen at the expense of the poorest.

UNDP has reaffirmed its dedication to ending energy poverty, and is stepping up its energy work to ensure that a clean energy transition is fair for everybody, reduces growth in energy demand, and redirects investments to sustainable energy.

Lack of clean cheap energy is one of the main causes of poverty. UNDP is committed to a UN-wide effort to provide clean and affordable energy to 500 million people by 2025.

Replacing fossil fuels and cooking with bio-fuels will also avoid millions of deaths and illnesses caused by air pollution, which kills one person in five.

The revolution is going to require financial commitment and the energy transition should be planned in a way that doesn’t deepen inequalities and exacerbate poverty. Big emitters will need to do more and follow the leadership of poorer countries to reach net-zero.

The International Energy Agency estimates that clean investments need to more than triple every year—US$4 trillion by 2030. Over the next three decades that represents well over US$100 trillion. It’s estimated that universal energyaccess will require US$40 billion a year between 2021 and 2030.

The good news is the cost of doing the right thing is far less than the cost of inaction.

Tossing out business-as-usual could mean a direct gain of US$26 trillion by the end of 2030. An average investment of US$1 yields US$4 in benefits.

Clean energy creates three times more jobs than dirty energy. And those jobs are more likely to go to women as well as men, and to benefit smaller businesses.

The International Labour Organization estimates that six million fossil fuel jobs will be lost, but with the right policies 24 million new jobs will be created by 2030.

Decentralized renewable energy create jobs in rural communities – the sector employs twice as many workers directly and up to five times as many in indirect jobs, particularly in the informal economies, which are the largest source of employment for least developing countries. 

Clean energy is doubling in capacity every two years, a growth rate faster than any other technology of its size—an average annual increase of 39 percent in the last decade.

Solar power used to be expensive.

Technological advances and new business models have flipped the switch.

The cost of solar has fallen by 89 percent since 2010. It’s now the cheapest in history, a very competitive alternative to dirty fuel such as coal, which is kept artificially low by subsidies.

Wind electricity tells a similar story. Over the last decade prices have fallen by an average nine percent and capacity has grown 17 percent a year.


But where do we find trillions of dollars?

We are throwing money at fossil fuels to the detriment of almost everything. Subsidies gobble up US$423 billion of public funding every year, often at the expense of social infrastructure such as schools and healthcare. In the five years since the Paris Agreement, the world’s 60 largest banks invested an estimated US$3.8 trillion in fossil fuel projects.

Subsidies discourage clean energy investment and favour the rich. Re-directing them to social protection programmes could wipe out extreme poverty and settle the debt we have racked up with the natural world.

Removing them would slash carbon emissions and the numbers of deaths from air pollution. Yet according to the International Energy Agency Sustainable Recovery Tracker, which measures governments’ responses to COVID-19, only two percent of clean energy investment is going to energy transition.

Fossil fuels are high-risk investments, and the signs are clear for many investors.

They are seeing their future profitability and stability aligned to a global economy powered increasingly by clean, sustainable energy.

The share value of fossil fuel related companies dropped by US$123 billion in the last decade, underperforming a key world equities index by 52 percent.

Electricity access has risen from 72 percent of the world’s population in 1998 to 90 percent in 2019.

Clean cooking numbers have grown more slowly—from 50 percent in 2000 to 60 percent in 2019.

Africa has both the lowest rates of clean energy and the potential to become a renewables superpower.

In sub-Saharan Africa, 52 percent of the population doesn’t have electricity.

In the Sahel region 169 million people don’t have electricity and none of the region’s 10 countries have a clean cooking rate higher than 43 percent.

Yet the region has vast, largely untapped renewable energy potential which could power economic growth and improve the lives of millions. UNDP will work to bring clean electricity to 1.1 million people and clean cooking to one million over the next five years.

Seventeen UN agencies have joined forces as part of the United Nations Integrated Strategy for the Sahel.

In a separate initiative, the Africa Minigrids Programme is promoting renewables in 18 countries. It’s one of the biggest off-grid programmes in the region and has the potential to reach 302 million of the 789 million people worldwide who don’t have electricity.

The scientific evidence is clear; there is only one way forward. The High-level Dialogue on Energy and COP26 makes way for ambitious plans that can keep the world on track regarding greenhouse gas emissions.

The moral imperative is also clear; we won’t achieve these bold goals without a clear focus on equity.

Closing the energy access gap and ending energy poverty are crucial to ensure that the revolution promotes equality, raises people out of poverty, and powers us forward to the SDGs.

They are seeing their future profitability and stability aligned to a global economy powered increasingly by clean, sustainable energy.

The clean energy revolution has begun. How qu
— Read on stories.undp.org/powering-the-future

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