Rio Environment Meeting Focuses On 'Energy For All'

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Diplomats and activists from around the world are meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week to talk about how the planet's growing population can live better lives without damaging the environment. The Rio+20 meeting marks the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio, a watershed meeting to address topics as diverse as climate change and biodiversity.

At this follow-up meeting, delegates hope to highlight an issue that was almost absent from the Earth Summit: making energy available to everyone in the world.

Combating 'Energy Poverty'

Three of the world's biggest problems are completely intertwined: Poor people need sources of energy to raise their standard of living; cheap energy from fossil fuels produces large amounts of carbon dioxide; and carbon dioxide is changing the climate in ways that are hardest on poor people.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon knows firsthand about energy poverty. While he was growing up in South Korea during the 1950s and '60s, his house was lit with smoky kerosene lamps instead of electricity.

"The candles are used only during the time to prepare for exam," he says. "Candles were considered to be too expensive for me and for most of the people."

His family finally got electricity when Ban was a college freshman, and it gradually spread throughout the country, bringing with it better education, better health, industry and wealth. But there are still 1.3 billion people in the world without reliable access to energy.

"Widespread energy poverty condemns billions of people to darkness, to ill health and to missed opportunities," Ban says.

So at the U.N. meeting in Rio, Ban is hoping to kick-start a big initiative to end energy poverty by 2030. The plan is called Sustainable Energy For All. The idea is to make sure everyone on the planet has power, to cut in half the amount of energy that's simply wasted, and to double the share of renewable energy worldwide.

'Prices Must Be Right'

This ambitious effort will cost something like $50 billion a year, but Carlos Pascual, the coordinator for International Energy Affairs at the U.S. State Department, says it's not another foreign aid program.

"If you define that as a development aid problem from the outset, you have failed," Pascual says. "If you define it as a strategy to be able to leverage and create the conditions for private investment, then you can succeed."

The idea is to create money-making opportunities to produce energy — especially clean energy — for people who need it most. Christian Friis Bach, Denmark's Minister for Development Cooperation, says making energy both abundant and clean presents a real dilemma.

"In order to promote access to all — also the poorest — prices must be low. If we want to double efficiency in the future, prices must be high," he says. "And if we want to make sure it's sustainable for all, prices must be right."

'A Very Chaotic Process'

These men spoke at a meeting this spring sponsored by the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. Friis Bach says on the plus side, it's much, much easier to talk about making energy available to everyone in the world than it is to talk about the need to crack down on fuel emissions.

In fact, he says, it's turning the climate debate on its head "because the climate debate has been about constraints and restrictions from the top. Sustainable Energy For All is about opportunities growing for all people, from the bottom."

But Rio may not turn out to be the best place to launch a bold initiative on clean energy for the world. Andrew Light from the Center for American Progress says the agenda for the Rio+20 meeting is so bloated and contentious that it's not clear what can be accomplished.

"The hazard here is that Rio+20 hasn't really lived up to the expectations that most of us have had," Light says. "I mean, it's been a very chaotic process, and so attaching any kind of substantive proposal to this process is going to be difficult."

The challenge for Ban Ki-moon is how to keep his sustainable energy initiative alive, even if the U.N. meeting in Rio turns out to be a flop.

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