World Is Not on Track to Meet UN’s 2030 Sustainable Energy Goals

As renewable energy costs fall, poor countries are making progress, but billions of people are still left with polluting fuels for cooking and transportation.

A herder purchases a portable solar power kit in Mongolia. Credit: Stephan Bachenheimer

Renewable energy systems, like this portable solar kit purchased by a herder in Mongolia, are spreading, but not fast enough to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a new report shows. Credit: Stephan Bachenheimer/World Bank

The world's poorest countries are making progress toward the United Nations' sustainable energy goals, but not as quickly as development agencies had hoped, according to a new report from the UN, the World Health Organization and three other international agencies.

Of the 1 billion people who lack access to electricity, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, only about a third will get it by 2030, they found, and more than 2 billion will still be cooking with unhealthy, polluting fuels.

The report, Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report, was released Wednesday at a two-day forum on sustainable energy in Lisbon.

It presents a report card on the energy targets contained in the latest UN Sustainable Development Goals, a broad array of anti-poverty objectives that take the risks of climate change into account. The targets were updated in 2015 as guideposts for balancing human health needs, particularly in the developing world, with environmental health. The goals are closely linked to the fight against global warming and the emissions reductions goals of the Paris climate agreement. Experts often say it will be impossible to achieve either set of international targets without the other.

 

The energy goals include universal access to electricity, universal access to clean cooking fuels, and increases in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Progress has been especially slow in shifting toward sustainable, modern cooking sources and away from dirty cooking fuels, such as charcoal, wood and dung. About 3 billion people, or 40 percent of the world's population, have no alternatives, and the pollution from their stoves and ovens kills an estimated 4 million people a year.

The report projected that 2.3 billion people will still use these fuels in 2030.

"The need for rapid deployment of clean cooking fuels and technologies has not received the attention it deserves from policy-makers, and lags well behind the rate of electrification in almost every country, even in spite of the smaller costs needed to ensure clean cooking solutions for all compared to electrification," the report says.

Electricity Access Up, Renewables Growing

The report also highlighted some bright spots.

Forty countries have achieved universal access to electricity since 2010. But of the world's total energy consumption, the report said, only 9.6 percent came from modern renewable sources, such as solar, wind, geothermal and hydropower, in 2016, and, while that is growing, it is still only forecast to be 15 percent by 2030.

Greg Wetstone, president of the American Council on Renewable Energy, said that global investment in renewables, including wind and solar, was on the order of $280 billion in 2017.

"The question is: How does it compare to our goals for climate and sustainability," Wetstone said. "I agree very much with the report: Even though we're doing very well, it's not nearly enough to meet those challenges. We're going to have to do better."

The report also noted that while the falling costs of wind and solar have led to increases in renewable energy in the electricity sector, electricity only accounts for 20 percent of total energy consumption. That, the report said, underscores the need for increasing renewables for heating and transportation, which account for the bulk of the world's energy use.

Seeking Solutions at the Bonn Climate Talks

The release of the report comes as climate talks continue in Bonn, Germany, where negotiators are assessing the progress of countries' commitments to reducing greenhouse gas emissions under the Paris climate agreement.

It cites a number of policy solutions, including phasing out fossil fuel subsidies to drive shifts toward renewables. In Bonn this week, Sweden, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Finland and New Zealand are calling for those phase-outs.

On Wednesday, a new study published in the journal Science Advances provided yet more evidence that climate change brought on by rising greenhouse gas emissions will drive extreme weather events in tropical areas, home to the developing countries at the heart of the Sustainable Development Goals.

"The countries that have contributed least to climate change, and are most vulnerable to extreme events, are projected to experience the strongest increase in variability," the authors wrote. "These changes would therefore amplify the inequality associated with the impacts of a changing climate."

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