Energy poverty remains the key issue in the interface of climate change and development.
According to the UNCTAD's Technology and Innovation Report 2011, Renewable Energy Technologies (RETs) offer a distinct possibility of tackling the dual challenges of climate change and energy poverty. According to estimates from the International Energy Agency (IEA), over 20 per cent of the global population — or approximately 1.4 billion people — had no access to electricity in 2010. Among them, South Asia has the largest proportion of people without access to electricity, accounting for 42 per cent of the world's total.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the most underserved region, with 69.5 per cent of the region's population having no access to electricity at all, and only 14 per cent of the rural population having access.
The lack of energy is not only important for a better quality of life: alleviating global energy poverty is a fundamental prerequisite for economic development in the developing world. UNCTAD's Technology and Innovation Report 2011 argued that RETs, which can be mixed with conventional energy sources, could provide countries with varied energy options to suit their specific needs and conditions. As the report revealed, RETs like solar pumps, solar PV installations, small wind, mini-hydro and biomass already provide cost-effective energy solutions that bring significant benefits to local communities.
Of the 1.4 billion people not connected to electricity grids globally, approximately 85 per cent live in rural areas, where RETs can be an important means of energy supply through semi-grid and non-grid solutions. Due to these distinct features and the declining costs of RETs in recent times, there has been a surge in the use of RETs worldwide, including in developing countries.
The supply of energy by RETs, globally, has risen rapidly over the past decade, especially since 2003, when hydrocarbon prices began surging. In 2009, developing countries accounted for about half of all electric power-generating capacity using RETs. The electricity-generating capacity from RETs — excluding large-scale hydropower — in developing countries has grown rapidly, almost doubling in five years, from 160 GW in 2004 to 305 GW in 2009.It has also stressed the need to focus on how RETs can complement conventional energy sources in developing countries to ensure that the lack of electricity — which is a major bottleneck to industrial development — can be overcome. Not only could RETs potentially help reduce energy poverty, they could also reduce social inequalities through the creation of new jobs in their application.
Germany, for example, created 40,000 new jobs in the renewable sector — particularly for electricity — between 1990 and 2002, and the number is projected to increase to 250,000-350,000 by 2050. It has been estimated that if South Africa were to use RETs in generating just 15 per cent of its total electricity by 2020, a total of 36,400 new jobs could be created without reducing employment in the coal-based electricity sectors.For all developing countries, RETs present real opportunities for reducing energy poverty, and the right policies could influence the extent of benefits that could be derived from the use, adaptation and dissemination of RETs. Greater deployment of RETs will therefore be a valuable part of an overall industrialization effort in developing countries.
Developing countries will need to strengthen their innovation systems through innovation policy frameworks that foster capacity and linkages to enable wider RET dissemination and to promote a greener catch-up process.UNCTAD's report suggested that continuous technological improvements in RETs that are making them more cost-effective, as well as growing global investments into RETs and their abundant availability worldwide, are all reasons why RETs will continue to expand, complementing conventional energy sources in the short and medium term, and eventually completely replacing conventional energy in the long term. It is by no means far-fetched as many RETs are much more cost-effective today than they were a decade ago.
At the same time, it noted that greater technological capabilities are required in developing countries, not only to use RETs more widely, but also to create minor technological improvements of the kind that can render RETs much cheaper and applicable in local contexts.
The report proposed that developing countries should promote rapid development and deployment of RETs of the kind that promote large energy savings through improved energy efficiency. Such a shift would represent more of an energy revolution than the current energy evolution, and will only be possible through governmental support and policy action.