A report released this week by the UN High-level Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC) calls for an urgent transformation of the global energy system to put the brakes on climate change as the world’s population heads toward 9 billion.
"We need to grow, but we need to grow green," Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations secretary-general, told reporters.
The report found that much of the growth in energy demand is coming from emerging economies, such as China and India. The energy intensity in these countries, or the amount of energy used to produce each unit of GDP, is three times that of rich nations.
Dirty electricity has been the lifeblood of industrial economies since the 19th century. The study called for a 40 percent reduction in global energy intensity by 2030 to address this. The fastest-growing countries would need to "leapfrog current systems" to access "cleaner, sustainable, affordable and reliable energy services."
The scale of the task is "daunting," but it is "not insurmountable," the report says.
Investing $1 trillion annually in infrastructure, deploying clean energy technologies and working to change human behavior to save watts would help secure a safer energy future. If done well, these measures would also create a "source of sustainable wealth creation," the study says.
The 19-member AGECC, set up by Ban last year and chaired by Kandeh K. Yumkella, the director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organization, includes executives connected to several major utilities and energy groups, including Edison International, Eskom, Statoil and Vattenfall.
"We wanted fresh thinking from the private sector," said Yumkella.
The group has been asked to continue its work to help influence the international climate talks planned for December in Mexico.
"You can’t fix climate change without investing in new energy systems," Yumkella added.
Almost two-thirds of greenhouse-gas emissions come from the global energy sector.
Part of the group’s solution focuses on energy conservation, both in energy supply by making power generation more efficient and in consumer demand by retrofitting or constructing buildings and transportation systems that are more energy efficient.
Efficiency measures could slash energy consumption growth by up to 75 percent, compared to doing nothing, the report says. It puts the capital costs at around $170 billion to $205 billion a year in low- and middle- income countries until 2030.
Some of the funds could be made available from the $30 billion in fast-start financing that wealthy countries committed to contribute during the Copenhagen climate talks last December, Yumkella said.
Of course, whether nations will make much effort to release the funds is an open question. The first $10 billion installment was supposed to begin flowing in 2010, and there are still few signs the money is coming.
But the world may not have much choice but to pump billions into efficiency in the global South if the push for universal electricity access becomes a worldwide priority.
Already, "current patterns of energy production and consumption are unsustainable" and "threaten the environment on both local and global scales," the report says.
2030: Universal Electricity Access in ‘Cleanest, Most Efficient Way Possible’
The advisory group called on the 193 member states of the UN and the private sector to mobilize resources to deliver electricity access for the most energy-poor citizens. This must be achieved in the "cleanest, most efficient way possible," said Ban, by scaling up renewable energy and other low-carbon technologies.
Currently, 1.6 billion people worldwide have no access to basic electricity, and 3 billion have no clean sources for cooking and heating.
The report estimates that $35 billion to $40 billion in up-front costs would be required per year to achieve basic access by 2030, without making a massive carbon footprint.
"We can provide access to basic modern energy services without significantly increasing greenhouse gas emissions," Ban said.