Green pathways out of crisis

April 20, 2021

A consistent theme throughout the Development Dialogues has been the imperative to seize opportunities provided by the COVID-19 pandemic to ‘build forward better’. In the context of greening energy, momentum has been growing around expanding clean, sustainable power and reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

This is especially good news for the more than 750 million people worldwide who lack  electricity, about half of whom live in conflict-affected countries. Energy access is a key element in peace building, yet most people living in conflict areas have only intermittent electricity, if at all. They need energy that is affordable, environmentally sustainable, and resilient in the face of conflict and uncertainty.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2021, we note that scaling energy access in crisis contexts has become more urgent and attainable than ever before. While progress is being made, this is in the most part offset by population growth, as access rates have not been able to keep up. COVID-19 has triggered an unprecedented economic shock, exacerbating existing vulnerabilities. But it also offers a chance to make a quantum leap in expanding clean, affordable energy to fuel economic recovery and enhance stability.

Significant cost reductions and quality improvements in distributed renewable energy technologies, such as solar mini-grids and other off-grid solutions, have brought about a convergence in what is good for the climate, what is needed to unlock economic growth in crisis contexts, and what is technologically feasible.

It was the prohibitive cost of diesel fuel that led entrepreneur Iman Hadi to install a solar power plant to serve the residents of Abss, Yemen with clean, affordable energy. Iman leads a team of 10 women in Yemen’s only women-run solar microgrid. With support from UNDP and the European Union, she aims to eventually extend solar services to 3,060 households, allowing them to increase their incomes and improve their living conditions.

Iman’s story is remarkable, but it need not be uncommon. Many crisis-affected states have significant renewable energy sources that are far from being fully exploited. The Sahel region alone has an average daily solar radiation two times higher than in Europe, and presents remarkable opportunities for the 140 million people in rural areas still lacking access. Along with partners, UNDP is seeking to increase its interventions focusing on clean energy access for productive use and for basic services. In Mali UNDP, UNICEF, WFP, WHO and the University of Sherbrooke are strengthening the Malian healthcare system through access to solar power and digital health solutions in community health centres. Harnessing these resources would also enable energy solutions that help create jobs through climate smart agriculture. However, financial commitments in off-grid solutions in countries with the largest energy access gaps remains a staggeringly low 1.1 percent of the total finance for electricity; only US$460 million in 2018.

This is why, on 24 February 2021, the g7+ Group and the IGC Council on State Fragility launched a call to action on powering up energy investment in fragile states. Signatories to the call include political leaders (current and former heads of states and governments) and more international organization that include UN agencies such as UNDP and UNESCAP, multilateral development agencies, businesses and think tanks. Recognizing the lack of access to sustainable energy and the untapped potential for renewable sources therein, the call to action urges aid agencies, governments, business and development financial institutions to work together to end energy poverty in conflict-affected countries and hence meet the aspirations of SDG 7 of the Agenda 2030. 

Taking the long view of the post-recovery energy landscape, the Partners for Inclusive Green Economies, of which UNDP is a member, has published a list of priority options for a just, green and transformative recovery. The options paper includes a call for governments to develop and actively use national green recovery plans, to recognize the value of nature in reducing risks, and to strengthen and broaden inclusive social protection mechanisms.

“How did we get here?” the paper begins. “Why are we vulnerable on this scale? And how can we recover?”

For people living in crisis contexts without adequate safe, affordable, green energy sources, these are the urgent questions of the moment. Getting the answers right now can help amplify development outcomes long after the pandemic is over.