No energy access leaves millions scrambling for survival, says U.N. special rep

Chief Europe Correspondent

The world needs to drastically step up funding to end energy poverty or risk leaving millions of people in poor countries fighting for their lives.

This is the blunt message from Damilola Ogunbiyi, the United Nations’ special representative for sustainable energy, who warned that the developed world does not grasp the urgency of the problem. That could also jeopardize the global goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050.

Energy poverty broadly refers to the lack of access to modern energy services—like electricity, heating and cooking fuels—necessary for human development.

“It’s not ‘I can’t pay my heating bill’ or ‘I can’t log onto my internet.’ It’s that ‘I literally have nothing’ and it’s a difference between life and death for millions of people,” she told Cipher in a recent Newsmakers virtual interview. “It’s not just and it’s not equitable and it’s not fair in terms of our energy transition journey.”

The U.N. is striving to ensure access to affordable, clean and modern energy for the entire world by 2030, a goal known as the agency’s Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7).

Globally, 733 million people have no access to electricity. The majority of those, 568 million, are in Africa, according to the World Bank. Sub-Saharan Africa alone represented 77% of the world’s population without electrification in 2020.

What’s more, some 2.4 billion people don’t have access to clean cooking solutions, instead using materials such as wood and charcoal, which are unhealthy because of the pollution they create and bad for the environment as more CO2 goes into the air. Ogunbiyi describes this as the “stepchild of electrification that nobody mentions.”

The Covid 19 pandemic has been a key factor in slowing down recent years’ progress toward universal energy access, and the war in Ukraine may create further setbacks, the World Bank said in June.

At the current rate of progress, 670 million people will remain without access to electricity by 2030, far from meeting SDG7.

“You can’t continue to want to maintain your standard of living while other people are literally dying in other countries,” said Ogunbiyi, who is also the CEO of Sustainable Energy for All, an international organization set up by the U.N. to help achieve SDG7.

Ogunbiyi spoke to Cipher as world leaders prepare to gather in New York City later this month for the U.N. General Assembly meeting, which will take stock of progress to meet sustainable development goals, as well as the Global Clean Energy Action Forum in Pittsburgh, which is focused on scaling up clean technologies.

Sustainable Energy for All helps speed up energy access through the Universal Energy Facility, a multi-donor financing platform that subsidizes de-centralized energy systems such a mini-grids or smaller solar systems. These can be especially helpful to women working in marketplaces or farmers with their irrigation in Africa, said Ogunbiyi, who is Nigerian.

“It’s not just having energy for energy’s sake,” she said. “It has to be energy for productive uses that increases GDP but fundamentally improves the lives of people.”

Ogunbiyi was the first female managing director of the Nigerian Rural Electrification Agency and the first woman to be appointed general manager of the Lagos State Electricity Board. During her time in Nigeria, she was responsible for the deployment of solar mini-grids and solar home systems.

In her current role tackling energy poverty, she must navigate a fine line between advocating for clean energy and ensuring energy access, which don’t always overlap.

Several African countries, including Nigeria, Senegal and Kenya, said they want to develop their natural gas resources to help tackle energy poverty and ensure domestic economic development.

This is at odds with increasingly tight funding conditions from international organizations and the developed world, which want to restrict fossil fuel financing as part of wider goals to cut emissions.

“I think the conversation has been too narrow on fossil or not fossil [fuels],” Ogunbiyi said. “The conversation is: what does it take to have a full energy transition?”

Some countries might not need to use any fossil fuels, others might need to use natural gas to balance renewable energy on the grid, while others could leapfrog directly to clean hydrogen, she said.

“You’re asking people to transition out to something they don’t have,” Ogunbiyi said. “Some people were even joking about it— ‘Can we transition to energy first?’—because you’re starting at such a low base point.”

Africa, which is made up of 54 countries, has had a negligible effect on climate change, representing only about 3.8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, yet the continent is one of the most vulnerable to the changing climate. The world’s top emitters are China, the United States, India and the European Union.

“There isn’t a scenario in the world where one half of the world can achieve its climate goals and you leave other people behind,” Ogunbiyi said.