Energy Access and Climate Change: Synergies and Trade-offs

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Energy is central to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

SDG 7 calls for ensuring universal access to “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services” by 2030.

SDG 13 invites us to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts”, and we know that energy production and use account for around two thirds of globalgreenhouse gas emissions and that sustainable energy systems are essential in achieving a low-carbon economy and consequently reducing emissions.

One notable aspect of SDG 7 is the evaluation of its three Targets. Energy access is covered by Target 7.1, where the adjectives “affordable, reliable, and modern” are explicitly used, while “sustainable” is not. Target 7.2 calls for a substantial increase of the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030, whereas Target 7.3 calls for doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030. This means that access to energy, at least in the period up to 2030, is not necessarily achieved through renewable energy systems, but may also be achieved through anappropriate use of fossil fuel energy systems, as we shall see below.

On the other side,SDG 13 requires a preliminary clarification, as it includes preventive actions to reduce the size and intensity of climate change (mitigation), as well as actions for people to take when changes in climate conditions materialise (adaptation).

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Interactions among SDG 7 and the other Sustainable Development Goals.

An analysis focusing on the interaction among SDG 7 and the other SDGs shows how SDG 7 can be considered an enabling factor for sustainable development.[1] This analysis is based on the methodology suggested in an article in mapping SDG interactions.pdf Nature about the interactions between SDGs. According to this methodology, SDGs relate to each other on a scale of seven, ranging from indivisible (inextricably linked to the achievement of another goal) to cancelling (makes it impossible to reach another goal).

From a social standpoint, the lack of access to energy is one of the biggest constraints to the main Goal of Agenda 2030 which lies in the eradication of extreme poverty (SDG 1). Energy access contributes to quality of life improvement because it provides better health-care services and greater life expectancy (SDG 3), as well as access to quality education (SDG 4). Moreover, the use of electricity allows replacing or easing time-consuming rural activities, especially for women and children (SDG 5). This allows them to develop their human and social potential by empowering their roles in their households and society. In addition, access to “modern” energy includes access to electricity as well as the use of less polluting cooking and heating systems (SDG 2). Electrification promotes industrialization and telecommunication services (SDG 9), it is critical for the supply of safe drinking water (SDG 6), as well as for the development of inclusive human settlements (SDG 11). With regard to the economic dimension, it is difficult to imagine economic development without access to modern energy, which is a key factor for the majority of products and services and encourages the development of companies which, in turn, allow job creation (SDG 8).

Careful attention must be given to the interplay between energy use and the Goal of reducing deforestation and soil degradation (SDG 15). Insofar as deforestation is a consequence of energy consumption for domestic use (heating and cooking), and as long as complete substitution of biomass with renewable energy sources is impossible or unaffordable, the welfare of local people is mostly improved by replacing current unhealthy and environmentally destructive practices with a well-organised use of the least polluting fossil fuels, such as LPG for cooking in place of charcoal.

Figure 1: Interaction between SDG 7 and the other SDGs

Figure 1: Interaction between SDG 7 and the other SDGs

Figure 1 describes the intensity of interactions and SDG 7 shows the strongest correlation with respect to SDG 13, followed by SDG 1, SDG 9, SDG 6 and SDG 2. The lowest interactions are found with SDG 14, SDG 15 and SDG 16. Results also highlight the correlation between energy, water, food and climate change that has been called the “water-food-energy-climate change nexus” approach. This nexus is a key topic in the 2030 Agenda. It aims to tackle different global challenges simultaneously; for example, food and water security, the connection between global warming and water scarcity, as well as between climate change and food production, energy security and the relationship between energy production and water and land use.[2]

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Interactions concerning SDG 7 and SDG 13

In order to mitigate the risk of climate change (SDG 13), it is crucial to reduce energy consumption (energy efficiency, Target 7.3) and improve the mix of energy sources in favour of renewables (Target 7.2), or in favour of less carbon-intensive fossil fuels.

When all three SDG 7 Targets are analysed at an aggregate level, energy can be considered as an enabling factor (creating the conditions that further another Goal), since a positive correlation is shown for eleven SDGs out of fifteen (Figure 1).

Some concern is justified when SDG 7 Targets are considered separately: the achievement of Target 7.1 could limit the options for achieving climate mitigation strategies. Energy systems cannot immediately abandon fossil fuels, which means that these sources will be a part of the energy landscape for many decades to come.[3]

On the other side, most assessments by international organisations (IEA, WB) and experts active in the field suggest that the conflict between extension of access to energy (Target 7.1) and reduction of emissions (Goal 13) is quite minor. One estimate indicates that should universal access to modern energy be achieved by 2030, global energy-related CO2 emissions will rise by 0.7 %.[4] An analysis found that an energy poverty eradication policy met by 2030 would increase final energy consumption by 7%.[5] If we then focus on regions where access to energy is a pivotal objective, such as Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) which has one of the highest energy poverty rates, some analysis reports that SSA will contribute to the global share of energy-related CO2 emissions by only 3%.[6] The improvement in electricity access would account for around 10% of the increased emissions in SSA, or just over 1% of the increase in global emissions from now to 2040.[7] Therefore, data suggests that providing universal access to energy is expected to have a very small impact on global CO2 emissions.

While this statement is reassuring, overconfidence should be avoided since the choice of the time horizon is crucial in any forecast. Obtaining universal access to energy implies small quantities of additional consumption which are linked to satisfying essential needs in a poor population; energy consumption will rise along with improved welfare and increased economic activity. It is important that the reference model for a better life for the people and for the economy in these countries is understood to be more sustainable than the model offered by the traditionally high-income countries.

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In conclusion, access to energy is a driver of 'social inclusion and economic development'. It can contribute to the alleviation of energy poverty. Although it may seemingly counteract climate change mitigation, this counter-effect would be minimal. Therefore, it is recommended that in order to access energy, developing nations must overcome technological lock-ins (situations in which the technology for a full transition to a sustainable energy system is not yet locally available) and develop their energy infrastructure based on sustainable energy systems. This would also assist them in implementing their National Determined Contributions (NDCs) and to close the gap in the mitigation targets of 2°C and 1.5°C, as defined by the Paris Agreement.

In this article, reference has been made to the mitigation component of Goal 13. Studies on adaptation are less developed and adaptation models are possibly more diversified among regions, so that a satisfactory exposition of the interaction between SDG7 and adaptation to climate change is not yet available.

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Further Information

Energy Access portal

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  1. Alloisio, I. et al. (2016) SDG 7 as an enabling factor for sustainable development: the role of technology innovation in the electricity sector, Proceedings from ICSD Conference, Columbia University, 21-22 September 2016
  2. IRENA (2015) Renewable energy in the water energy and food nexus, Abu Dhabi: IRENA
  3. World Economic Forum (2015) What role will fossil fuels play in our low-carbon future?. Cologny/Geneva: WEF
  4. Chakravarty S., and Tavoni M. (2013) Energy Poverty Alleviation and Climate Change Mitigation: Is there a Trade-off? FEEM Note di Lavoro No. 25/2013
  5. International Energy Agency (2011) CO2 emissions from fuel combustion, Paris: IEA/OECD
  6. Alloisio I. et al. (2017) Energy Poverty Alleviation and its Consequences on Climate Change Mitigation and African Economic Development. FEEM Policy Brief No. 02.2017
  7. IEA (2014). Africa Energy Outlook, World Energy Outlook Special Report, Paris: IEA/OECD

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This article is part of the Energy Access Portal which is a joint collaboration between energypedia UG and the “World Access to Modern Energy (WAME)". WAME is managed by the Museo Nazionale della Scienza e Tecnologia Leonardo da Vinci (MuST), the Fondazione AEM and the Florence School of Regulation (FSR) and it is supported by Fondazione CARIPLO.

This article was written by Isabella Ilosio, Research Associate, Florence School of Regulation