I got involved in the second annual SE4All (Sustainable Energy For All) forum through an email from Brooklyn College’s Magner Center. The United Nations staff needed interns for the event so they asked for volunteers. Of course I agreed because it would fit in perfectly with my Brooklyn College class this semester which emphasized climate change education and sustainability for our planet – both today and in the future. Fortunately, I was selected to attend the last day of the forum on May 21, 2015 so I was able to spend four hours there as an observer. When I told Professor Micha Tomkiewicz about the experience, he suggested I write another guest blog.
The only way to describe the SE4All forum’s overall atmosphere is exhilarating. Within my four hours there I heard speeches from ministers representing over 30 nations from around the world. The excitement I felt at hearing one energy leader after another rise to the podium and describe his country’s efforts to improve sustainability is indescribable. It was basically seeing the start of tangible unity on a shared issue of global proportions. What I honestly expected was to see standing room only in the general assembly room of the UN. Unfortunately there were loads and loads of empty seats, but I’m sure that in the near future that particular problem will disappear.
I believe the idea of the forum was to bring together a tremendous diversity of world leaders representing every kind of nation on earth together under a shared roof. While there they would have an opportunity to share their views for what has to be done to secure sustainable energy for everyone. Sustainable energy for everyone means providing over one billion people with electricity that they don’t have today. It also means getting it to them in a way that doesn’t harm the environment. What the international community is thankfully very cognizant of is that poverty and access to energy go together. As the representative from Swaziland so cleverly put it, “poverty cannot be addressed without addressing energy poverty.” So to lift people out of poverty, there must be a way to bring people affordable and reliable energy. To do this sustainably, there must be a major consideration for environmental impact. Each representative brought to the podium a unique and interesting insight which affected their home countries but also had implications for the entire world.
There were a number of representatives from the Pacific Island states like Kiribati, Nauru and the Marshall Islands. They share a number of similar problems; because they don’t have any native fossil fuels, they have to import enough to satisfy their domestic needs, meaning that they each spend about ¼ of their GDP on fossil fuels. This is a tremendous financial burden on all of them. What they desperately need is to figure out a renewable energy solution for their energy needs. Nauru is the smallest of these and the one most in need of major help. At a population of about 10,000 it considers itself to be nearly on the brink of disaster. The island doesn’t have a real port; the nation relies on importing expensive fossil fuels and has absolutely no alternative way to generate electricity. Kiribati, meanwhile, is about 10x larger population-wise and is comprised of low-lying islands, making them extremely sensitive to rising water levels. The Maldives, which are a group of islands in the Arabian Sea, also have to rely on importing fossil fuels at the expense of ¼ of their GDP. This for them is completely unsustainable and they are determined to take advantage of the vast potential for solar energy on their islands to help supply their demands for electricity.
Barbados and New Zealand proved to have a much brighter story to tell. Barbados is proud to have reduced CO2 emissions while raising its economic output. It also plans on getting 50% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020. Barbados, which is the wealthiest and most developed country in the eastern Caribbean, has called on all countries to reduce their respective carbon emissions for the sake of preserving our world. New Zealand is a group of Polynesian islands which produces 70% of its electricity from renewable sources. The country is growing at a dynamic rate, transforming itself into a competitive, industrialized global economy.
Asia as a whole had a number of attending nations who had impressive near-term goals for sustainable energy. Since there are 387 million people – more than the population of the U.S.A. – without electrical power in Asia Pacific, the issue is extremely pressing. Cambodia, one of the poorest countries in the world, plans to provide electricity to 70% of households by 2025 using mostly hydropower. Indonesia, a country which is growing constantly, is planning on providing electricity for all of its inhabitants. It wants to establish a clear policy framework for energy production and is encouraging technological innovations in renewable energy.
Representing Africa was a large assortment of developing and emerging nations – Congo, Angola, Kenya, Tanzania, Swaziland, Sudan, Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone. They span a wide spectrum of sustainable energy needs and wants. What they all seem to agree upon is the need to lower the cost of electricity and to provide access to energy for the hundreds of millions of people who don’t have electric power on the continent. A number of countries have completed or are completing renewable energy projects. Kenya has geothermal plants, hydropower and liquefied natural gas projects. The Congo, an emerging economy, will give electric power access to 42% of its citizens by 2025 at a personal cost of 2.5 billion dollars. Angola plans to be using hydropower by 2024 in order to protect its environment and provide renewable energy to its people. Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa, is working on reducing its people’s dependence on biomass for fuel – instead it wants to provide 50% of its energy needs with solar sources by 2030. Tanzania, Sierra Leone and Sudan are all in need of sustainable energy expertise and resources. Sudan, for example, is far behind in renewable energy, having spent many years without transfers of knowledge in its lands. To give an idea of the diverse energy needs on the continent, bear in mind that Rwanda believes that energy is important for economic growth and sees its rich sources of biomass for energy as a major asset. Ultimately the diversity of Africa is very great but perhaps the minister for Sierra Leone captured it best when he pointed out that, “electricity in Africa averages about $1/kWh; what we need to do is turn talk into kWh.” (In NYC we pay between $.06-.12/kWh).
Some of the most inspiring and fascinating delegations came out of the Middle East – Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Turkey all had fascinating things to say and plenty of suggestions. Bahrain and the UAE are both extremely rich in fossil fuels but they both had lots of good things to say about alternative energy. Bahrain wants to establish a sustainable energy initiative and to implement action plans to develop a “high-level road map.” As of now, the country has made great use of its wealth in solar energy, using rooftops and its own personal “solar-trees.” Bahrain also wants to discourage use of fossil fuels by doubling the price of natural gas by 2020. The UAE, which prior to discovery of oil 30 years ago was an impoverished nation, today has one of the highest standards of living in the world. Even so, it advocated for renewable energy, claiming that renewables offer cost savings and are seeing improvements in efficiency. The UAE has also banned incandescent light bulbs and built wind farms. Azerbaijan, a high economic growth country, is putting significant resources into renewable energy. It is working on a city that will only use renewable energy – primarily sun, water and wind to generate electricity. Kazakhstan, an extremely large emerging nation, is working to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and move to a greener economy. It wants to reduce CO2 emissions and improve energy efficiencies for all of its people. The country invited everyone to join it at the Astana Expo in 2017 to continue working on sustainable energy. Turkey, which is a G20 partner, wants to provide access to affordable, reliable energy for everyone. It is making progress in certain parts of Africa but is experiencing some problems in sub-Saharan Africa. Israel, which has a technologically advanced economy, is also working and willing to partner with anyone to come up with improvements on sustainable energy. It produced solar projects in the Negev which have cut hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 emissions – an amount equal to the effect of planting half a million trees.
From Europe and the Americas there were representatives from the United Kingdom, Italy, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Romania, Brazil and Canada. All of the countries had projects they were actively pursuing. Romania was pursing nuclear energy as a renewable source and spoke about preserving the world for future generations. Brazil affirmed that now is the time for solar power. Italy proudly declared it is the first country of its size to source 11% of its energy from solar power. It is also investing in energy projects in Africa, South America, and Asia. Switzerland spoke about fossil fuel subsidies; according to the Swiss, those subsidies only benefit the rich and it’s time to get rid of them, especially now that oil prices are low. The United Kingdom wants access to clean energy to be mandatory by 2030. It passed the 2014 gender equality act and now wants to eliminate energy barriers for women. The UK has called this the “decade of sustainable energy for all” and is providing capital resources for 3 African countries. Canada said that it takes s of its energy from renewable sources. It’s adapting policy for climate change and is working on renewable energy and energy efficiency.
After the individual speeches finished there was a panel discussion on sustainable energy. The panel was comprised of representatives from the Philippines, Fiji and the World Bank. The representative from the Philippines said that renewable energy tends to be high risk and low return, and the energy policy in the Philippines is incoherent. One of the problems, she emphasized, was that there is a wider than necessary umbrella for what constitutes “green energy,” i.e. it includes nuclear energy, so policy regarding it is tough to pin down. She also stressed the importance of ownership and concluded that for this to work, the whole world must agree to take action. The representative from Fiji believed that money can fix the sustainable energy problem, but questioned how to attract such investments. He believed that financing emerging economies is a secure venture because they are determined to pay their debts. He also underscored that friends (and allies) should help each other and that risk is acceptable in these cases.
The representative of the World Bank looked into the questions of current trends and existing gaps in access. She also informed us that internationally, we are not meeting our sustainable energy and emissions goals. Cooking is the most worrisome activity, because too many people are cooking with biomass, so the biggest gains have come in electrifying villages, particularly in India. She told us that Africa is doing a good job, energy-wise of keeping up with population growth, its countries need to start expecting increased demand. In total, the energy saved in the world from 2012-today is equal to the amount of energy that Brazil uses per annum. She concluded that while we’ve done good work in upgrading our electricity generation systems, we have done almost nothing to improve our transportation and heating. An important note regarding the last point is that the shift to renewable energy is much smaller in transportation and heating, but there is not sufficient funding for the necessary projects, “to be successful we would need to triple our current funds.”
As incredible and impactful as this session of the UN SE4All was, it was only 4 hours out of a 4 day event. The event attracted speakers from almost every nation on earth and brought leaders together to unify them under the banner of climate change response and our planet’s shared welfare. It was unforgettable seeing so many countries committed to getting energy to their people, but it was also so inspiring to know that they only want to do it in a renewable, sustainable way. The acute awareness of climate change was expressed loudly and clearly as leaders and ministers stood up one after another pledging an interest in sustainable and renewable energy for their nation’s future. Within my lifetime billions of people are going to have electricity and electrical appliances that they have never had before. Many of them require tremendous amounts of energy to operate. Knowing that this energy has to be supplied without leaving a carbon footprint on the Earth is positive reassurance that we are advancing and modernizing in a responsible way for everyone. As so many of the speakers articulated so well, climate change is indisputable and renewable energy is the only energy for the future.
Denis Ladyzhensky is a Brooklyn College Undergraduate student graduating with a B.A. in Physics. He spent five years studying Talmudic law and the Hebrew Bible in Jerusalem. He hopes to get a professional degree in electrical engineering and to one day work on projects that improve life for everyone.