Written by Attila Farkas
I. The Issue – Energy Transition
The energy consumption patterns of humanity have radically changed due to the industrial revolution and the rapid scaling up of energy production. The heavy increase of per capita energy consumption was made possible by 1) the increasing efficiency of generators and 2) fuels with high energy density.
These fuels are basically fossil fuels with high rate of CO2-emission. During the last century both energy and carbon intensity (amount of energy or CO2 ‘needed’ for the production of a unit of GDP) have increased, and the trend has changed only recently (as now both indices are in decline in global terms).
The energy sector provides ca. 70% of the total (human induced) GHG-emissions leading to an unprecedented increase in GHG-concentration.
This concentration most likely leads to a tipping point (if haven’t passed it already) where climate change becomes an irreversible process (e.g. as the permafrost melts releasing additional CO2 and CH4). Passing such tipping point(s) will likely lead to exceeding certain planetary (sustainability) boundaries.
GHG-emissions seem to be intrinsic to our current energy system and economy. In order to avoid or mitigate irreversible adverse changes in the climate a global energy transition is needed, a transition on unprecedented scale and quality.
Changing the energy system is a long process to which at first it is necessary to (re)construct the common ideas and goals, to achieve a proper, common, forward-looking contextualization of the problem among the stakeholders (public, private, academia, civil), keeping in mind the interconnected and globalized nature of global challenges.
II. The Actors – UNEP and UNDP
Global challenges require global actors to steer the debate, set the agenda, give priorities and most importantly to form a common language and understanding on global scale. The UN-system as the main actor and facilitator of the global governance system, addressed this need by formulating the Sustainable Development Goals (see the list and a comprehensive introduction) targeting the interconnected global issues in a multidimensional and multi-actor way. The key goal is the individual, human development both in the developing and developed countries.
The SDGs include one specific goal (#7) and several sub-targets connected directly to the global energy transition – an important step forward, as the Millennium Development Goals lacked such focus.
The vast network of UN agencies and organizations offer expertise in certain policy areas and assistance in forming and implementing actions along SDGs. While the goals are the same, the focus is different as organizations try to maximize their added value in the global process.
The United Nation Environmental Program shapes and pioneers the environmental dialogue within the UN system since 1972 covering all related topics and most SDGs – almost half of them are directly environment related (see pp. 45-46.). UNEP sets agenda by providing future looking analyses and outlooks, predicting policy trends. Besides, it also monitors the state of play of environmental issues within the UN framework and participates in concrete projects as well, but not as a core activity. The UNEP’s main strategic focus is on:
- Environmental review, warning, assessment
- Policy advisory
- Catalyzing international cooperation
- Assisting national legal frameworks, building technical capacities
In terms of the energy transition – directly related to SDG #7 and #13 (climate change) – the UNEP focuses on providing services for the UN and governments with analyses and especially policy advises, but it also pursues several financial operations (see the list of running projects). The UNEP successfully implemented several solar loan projects helping to form a viable, economically sustainable model. This also provides a great example on the private sector involvement by UN bodies – a much needed tool for the realization of SDGs.
The UNEP has a clear advantage and prestige in its agenda-setter role, but in order to maximize its potential as a policy-setter (and enabler) it should strive for a stronger, more direct influence on the UN environmental framework.
The United Nations Development Programme has an overarching responsibility on the human development within the UN framework covering basically all SDGs, but especially the ones related to sustainable development models, (climate) resilience and governance. Through intensive cooperation with governments and sub-governmental, even civil entities, the UNDP aims to implement projects and provide models, examples of efficient aid use.
As an organization closer to the field operation the UNDP uses the energy transition as an opportunity to reduce vulnerabilities, develop new capabilities. The UNDP understands the role of clean, accessible energy as an enabler of poverty reduction therefore strongly supports access projects (enabling access to the grid), renewable energy installations (local generation capacity) and energy efficiency investments. These fields resonate with the sub-targets of the #7 SDG also covering universal access, share of renewables and improvement of energy efficiency. On ongoing sustainable energy projects the UNDP mobilized ca. $350 million through innovative public-private partnerships. UNDP is keen on removing legal, financial barriers to pave the way for the private sector.
The UNDP’s field operations are highly cost-intensive compared to other UN bodies’ more consultative roles. The traditional income channels are shrinking however, the UNDP is therefore increasingly dependent upon ad hoc project-based payments (by donors). This unfortunate process could be countered with further innovative financial models, like the integration of social impact investment actors into the UNDP’s activities.