At the start of COP21, the most important energy-related event this century, we have an opportunity to launch a revolution in the way we power the world for future generations, and we must seize it.  

Leading into the UN climate negotiations in Paris there has been much discussion about levelling the playing field for renewable energy vis-à-vis fossil fuels by abolishing subsidies and other forms of government support. But there is another, equally fundamental clean energy and climate injustice that deserves a spotlight at COP21 and beyond: access to modern energy services for the over two billion people worldwide who live without decent access, and the over 1.1 billion who lack any modern energy at all.  

Currently the only choice being presented by energy ministries and infrastructure developers in many emerging economies is centralized grid systems—built out using massive, slow-to-deploy hub and spoke models—that are unlikely to economically reach the rural areas where most of the energy poor live on a timescale that is acceptable.

 Peruvian farmer puts up a solar panel | Photo: Practical Action

Peruvian farmer puts up a solar panel | Photo: Practical Action

Awareness about the enormous role decentralized energy can play remains low, especially among investors and governments. This is an issue more urgently in need of attention than ever before. Why? Because these decentralized, clean technologies can solve both the climate and development crises more quickly and effectively than we ever thought possible. They are already completely de-risked and ready to be deployed at scale. The only thing standing in the way of progress at the moment is a lack of financial and political will to give appropriate consideration to the impressive successes already evidenced by decentralized renewables thus far.  

COP21 offers the opportunity to make decentralized renewables a centerpiece of our collective effort for minimizing global temperature rise, while at the same time providing electricity access to the over 2 billion energy poor. And lest we forget, it is further estimated that over four million jobs can be created in the next decade and a half in this space. It is the ultimate win-win-win.

While historically the majority of greenhouse gas emissions have come from the “developed” world, the International Energy Agency estimates that the vast majority of energy infrastructure growth this century will take place in developing countries. This alone means that how we deliver energy access must be a critical focus of the climate agenda.

And that is precisely the focus of Power for All, a collection of private sector and civil society organizations working to level the playing field, and more importantly the planning field, for decentralized renewable energy, which faces unnecessary political and regulatory roadblocks in many countries today. 60 years of energy infrastructure work in emerging economies have failed to to deliver modern energy to the billions who often have no alternative but to use dangerous and polluting fuels such as kerosene for lighting.

Power for All is broadcasting the message that decentralized solutions can help us get to grid-quality power faster, cleaner and more affordably. Universal energy access using decentralized renewable technologies is more reliable than grids in many countries, with the ability to create millions more jobs than centralized solutions. And importantly in the context of COP21, decentralized renewables set countries on a pathway to green growth and avoid “lock-in” to carbon-intensive alternatives.

Climate negotiators in Paris should help set the stage for progress on climate change that does not rely solely on the methods that have failed so many for so long. It is time for a global shift in thinking. That shift must start with three actions emerging from COP:

  • Ramping up of resources and capacity to the Technology Needs Assessment and Technology Action Plan processes to ensure that there is a focus not only on their creation (as is currently the case), but on their implementation as well (for which there are currently no resources).
  • A radical increase in resources and capacity of the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN) to provide technical assistance to developing countries in accessing climate-smart technologies.
  • Clear recognition in the decision text that climate mitigation tools and actions should deliver on multiple bottom lines whenever possible. In the energy space, this would help broaden the focus away from simply reducing emissions and force countries to look at how and why specific measures are chosen.