A Call for Sustainable Energy for All, From Within a Walled City for the Rich

The United Nations' International Year of Sustainability for All will be launched in Abu Dhabi, the site of the zero-carbon Masdar City. Sub-Saharan Africa would have been a better place

On Monday, delegates and stakeholders representing various factions of the sustainability movement will be meeting in Abu Dhabi for the World Future Energy Summit (WFES) 2012, a key international event in the sustainable energy calendar leading up to the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June. The summit is being billed as "the world's foremost annual meeting committed to advancing future energy, energy efficiency and clean technologies by engaging political, business, finance, academic and industry leaders to drive innovation, business and investment opportunities in response to the growing need for sustainable energy."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon will use the ocassion -- his second consecutive year addressing the WFES attendees -- to launch the International Year of Sustainability for All, a 2012 initiative designated by the UN General Assembly to raise awareness about sustainable access to energy, energy efficiency and renewable energy on the local, regional and global levels. The goal to achieve sustainable energy itself has achieved frontpage news status. But in truth, much of the debate is limited to the rich world. What is often overlooked is the fact that more than a fifth of the world's people have no access to electricity at all.

"Energy services have a profound effect on productivity, health, education, climate change, food and water security, and communication services," according to a statement by the UN introducing the initiative. "Lack of access to clean, affordable and reliable energy hinders human, social and economic development and is a major impediment to achieving the Millennium Development Goals."


According to the 2011 World Energy Outlook report issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA), more than 1.4 billion people around the world do not have access to electricity and some 2.7 billion people do not have access to clean cooking facilities -- basic utilities that the developed world takes for granted and which are critical to a society's economic development. The agency notes that over 95 percent of these people live in either sub-Saharan Africa or Asia; 84 percent live in rural areas, while the UN estimates that some 3 billion rely on "traditional biomass" and coal as their main fuel sources.

In 2009, approximatey USD 9.1 billion was invested globally to expand access to modern energy services, estimates the IEA, which projects that this type of investment (primarily to develop urban on-grid electricity connections) will average a mere USD 14 billion per year through 2030. (To put that figure into context, Goldman Sachs set aside USD 15.3 billion for salaries and bonuses in 2010.) The IEA notes that "this level of investment will still leave 1.0 billion people without electricity and, despite progress, population growth means that 2.7 billion people will remain without clean cooking facilities in 2030." The agency is calling for an investment of USD 48 billion per year, "more than five times the level of 2009."


Where could this money come from? What's become increasing clear is that the kind of investment needed for a sustainable future on a global level requires all hands on deck. "To succeed, we need everyone at the table -- governments, the private sector and civil society -- all working together to accomplish what none can do alone," wrote Ban in a recent New York Times opinion piece. "The United Nations is well-placed to convene this broad swathe of actors and forge common cause between them. That is why I have established our new initiative, Sustainable Energy for All. Our mission: to galvanize immediate action that can deliver real results for people and the planet."

Calling for governmental and private sector commitments -- and connecting sustainable energy to poverty alleviation, Ban's new initiative has three objectives to meet by 2030: ensuring universal access to modern energy services, doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.


On the face of it, Abu Dhabi seems like a good place for Ban to spread his message. After all, it is the site of the super high-tech and futuristic Masdar City, which is being promoted as the world's first zero-carbon and zero-waste city. The some 26,000 summitters scheduled to arrive in Abu Dhabi next week for the WFES will undoubtedly be impressed by the solar-powered, vehicle-free, 2.3-square mile Norman Foster-designed sustainable city in the desert.

But is a 20-billion-dollar walled city that has been called an "elitist playground" the appropriate place to launch an initiative called the "International Year of Sustainability for All"? As Jennifer Taylor notes in Alternative Journal, "Not only is it situated in the United Arab Emirates, which has a huge vested interest in the continued exploitation of fossil fuels and one of the biggest per-capita carbon footprints in the world, but its major financial supporters include General Electric, BP, Royal Dutch Shell and Rolls-Royce." Writing in the New York Times, Nicolai Ouroussoff called Masdar "the crystallization of another global phenomenon: the growing division of the world into refined, high-end enclaves and vast formless ghettos where issues like sustainability have little immediate relevance."

Perhaps the summit organizers might consider having next year's meeting in Mali, where 92 percent of residents are without electricity at their place of work. Or Burkina Faso, where only 1 percent have regular electricity. Or Botswana, where 58 percent experience regular power outages. Maybe if the world's leaders personally witnessed how a fifth of the world's people actually struggle to survive, perhaps raising a USD 48 billion annual investment would sooner become a reality. After all, being in the dark can often lead to seeing the light. And in Masdar's glimmering city in the sand, the light can actually be blinding.



World Future Energy Summit, July 19, 2011.
United Nations. 2012 - International Year for Sustainable Energy for All. October 27, 2011.
International Energy Agency. Energy for All: Financing Access for the Poor. World Energy Outlook 2011, October 2011.
Ibid., 2.
Ibid., 3.
Goldman Sachs. "Goldman Sachs Reports Earnings Per Common Share of $13.18 for 2010," January 19, 2011.
Ban, Ki-Moon. "Powering Sustainable Energy for All," New York Times, January 11, 2012.
United Nations Foundation. Sustainable Energy for All, September 21, 2011.
Masdar City. Official website.
Kinetic Network, "News About Masdar." September 26, 2010.
Taylor, Jennifer. "Shiny, slick and sustainable: Abu Dhabi's Masdar City is an experiment in sustainability built on oil money. But will it work?" Alternative Journal, November-December, 2009.
Ouroussoff, Nicolai. "In Arabian Desert, a Sustainable City Rises." New York Times, September 25, 2010.
Gallup. "In Sub-Saharan Africa, Most Workers Are Without Electricity." January 5, 2012.

image: Model of the Masdar Headquarters in Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (credit: Imre Solt, Wikimedia Commons)