Time, at last, to deliver the energy transition

Posted on 20 September 2021

The UN’s High-Level Dialogue on Energy needs to finally deliver an energy transition that has been decades in the making, writes Manuel Pulgar-Vidal
Later this week, the UN General Assembly will hold its first global gathering in 40 years to consider energy issues. At the last such meeting, the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, in Nairobi in 1981, climate change was neither on the agenda, nor mentioned in the post-conference report.
  
Fast-forward to today, and everything has changed, yet everything remains the same. Renewable energy is ubiquitous and made cheap by massive investment and ceaseless research. Yet, our energy and transport systems remain dominated by fossil fuels. Climate change is recognized as an existential threat, and much of the world has committed to eliminate greenhouse gases by mid-century. But emissions continue to rise, as policymakers duck the tough near-term decisions needed. We have the technologies and the tools we need to solve our energy and climate challenges, yet the political will to enable the energy transition remains weak.
 
For all the progress of the last four decades, time is fast running out. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – itself created more than 30 years ago – paints a sobering picture of impacts we are already feeling from a changing climate. The report from Working Group 1 of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Group presents “unequivocal” evidence of human influence in warming the atmosphere, oceans and land. It warns of changes “unprecedented over many centuries” and that are already “irreversible for centuries to millennia”. The UN Climate Change NDC Synthesis Report, released last week, concludes that the current commitments will amount to a reduction of 12% of emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels. 
 
The stakes, then, for the forthcoming UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy could not be higher. It aims to catalyse governments to draft “Energy Compacts” that set out how they aim to achieve clean, affordable energy for all by 2030, in line with the seventh UN Sustainable Development Goal, and net-zero emissions by 2050, to meet the objectives of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.
 
The Dialogue also aims to draw up a “global roadmap”, setting out five themes through which these objectives are to be achieved. For each of these themes, we have specific expectations that we believe governments must meet to put the energy transition on track.  
 
The first is focused on these “Energy Compacts”, through which member states and non-state actors, such as companies, local governments, etc. should set actions and targets aligned with holding global warming below 1.5°C, delivering a net-zero emissions world and pursuing a just energy transition.
 
On “Energy Access”, governments need to commit to building markets and attracting investment to remote locations through policies and regulation. On the “Energy Transition” theme, we believe that rich-world governments should target the phase-out of coal power generation by 2030, with the rest of the world following by 2040. 

The fourth theme is ensuring a “Just Transition”, whereby workers and communities who depend upon fossil fuel extraction and carbon-intensive industries are supported as we move away from polluting energy sources. Governments must develop national and local just transition strategies that are inclusive and transparent.

On the fifth theme, covering “Finance & Investment”, governments must commit to eliminate the funding of fossil fuels through public bilateral and multilateral channels, subsidies and private finance, while also addressing the indirect impacts that the finance sector has on nature loss.
 
Through this dialogue process, the UN General Assembly has the opportunity to rally the world around the low-carbon energy transition ahead of the critical COP26 climate talks in November. It must add to the enormous momentum to tackle the decarbonization of the energy sector we are seeing coming from all quarters. Leading the way are bodies such as the International Energy Agency, with its first ever scenario for net-zero emissions; groupings such as the G7, which resolved to stop international financing of coal projects; coalitions like US/EU who have made a global pledge to reduce emissions of methane by nearly 30% by 2030, or individual countries like the US, which has set out a plan for solar power to meet almost half its electricity needs by 2050, or others who, according to the UN Climate Change Synthesis Report, have included references to systemic transformative actions in their NDCs. Examples of these include halting investments in unabated coal and phasing out fossil fuel passenger vehicles. Renewable energy is the preferred mitigation option by countries, followed by measures for energy efficiency improvement. These are essential to move the global economy to be aligned with the 1.5°C goal of the Paris Agreement.

Between the High Level Dialogue on Energy and COP26, the G20 summit at the end of October provides an opportunity for leaders to secure ambitious climate commitments across the G20 and set an urgent deadline for fossil fuel subsidy phase-out.  

By the climate talks in Glasgow in November, leaders must have increased the ambition of their emission reduction commitments, particularly with the near-term policies needed to match their longer-term goals. They also need to find the finance to help the developing world respond to the climate crisis. And they need to work to manage the complex interrelationships between climate change and damage to our natural world.
 
That vulnerable ecosystems are threatened by climate change is obvious. But they also face risks from an energy transition that is poorly planned. The aggressive expansion of renewables is essential, but certain clean energy technologies – such as large-scale energy crops, or some hydropower projects – can have negative impacts on global biodiversity. Addressing climate change and nature loss will, inevitably, involve some difficult trade-offs. But we cannot afford to solve climate change at the expense of the biodiversity on which we all depend.

READ: WWF's latest report, A Brighter Future, which outlines that the world can now meet global climate and energy goals without harming communities, sacrificing free flowing rivers or driving greater nature loss just by investing in the right renewables in the right places.
 
The Armstrong Cooperative (Cooperativa de Provisión de Obras y Servicios Públicos Limitada de Armstrong) solar plant in Argentina.
© Jason Houston / WWF-US