Damilola Ogunbiyi: COP27 cannot be a ‘talk shop’ – we need action on clean, equitable energy access

Ogunbiyi is CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and co-chair of UN-Energy

To say that it has been a busy year for those working on the energy transition would be an understatement. The so-called energy trilemma – cost, security and environmental impact – has been front and centre of the mainstream news and political agendas in Europe this year, with the rise in wholesale fossil fuel prices underway since last summer exacerbated by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

In the UK, where edie is based, and in other parts of the global north, there has been much debate and research around what this will mean for the energy transition. Is this an opportunity to ‘super-charge’ renewables development? Or is it more likely that Europe will backslide on coal and import gas from other parts of the world than Russia?

In the midst of all of this theorising, Ogunbiyi tells edie, the developed world is probably forgetting a few key considerations. The first, for the UK specifically, is that “energy efficiency is the answer – we ultimately have to use less”. The UK Government has failed to bring forward any new national energy efficiency schemes in 2022 and 70% of energy managers believe its other interventions here have had no positive impact.

The second is that the process of importing fossil fuels from alternative suppliers – often places with their own energy security and access issues – at short notice should raise significant concerns about social and economic impacts

And, finally, we are likely forgetting the fact that 770 million people are still living without access to electricity, and more than 2.5 billion without access to clean cooking fuels, mainly in African and Asian regions.

COP: A look back, a look ahead

Sustainable Energy for All’s reason for being is ensuring that the needs of these people are considered and prioritised as governments, businesses, philanthropists, communities and the finance sector plan to accelerate energy development. Of course, it also advocates for – and tracks progress towards – energy transition in line with the climate ambitions of the Paris Agreement. This is all consistent with the UN’s seventh Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) on ensuring access to “affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all” by 2030.

These topics will doubtless be front and centre when COP27 begins in Sharm El Sheikh in November.

In Ogunbiyi’s opinion, there were some “really historic” moments and agreements on energy access and clean energy at COP26 in Glasgow just ten months ago.

“To see a country like my own, Nigeria, and to see a country like India – and by that I mean a country deeply embedded in fossil fuels – to talk about energy systems transformation and say for the first time that they had net-zero targets, was important,” she says.

“Similarly, you had the likes of Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal saying similar things. These are economies who have not looked at renewables as an answer so that, for me, was definitely a success.”

“Could more have happened? Definitely,” she adds, pointing to the last-minute weakening of language on fossil fuel subsidies and developments in the official outcome, the Glasgow Climate Pact. Phasing “out” fossil fuels was softened to phasing “down”, and mentions of ending subsidies were caveated with “inefficient”. Nonetheless, it was the first time that fossil fuels were explicitly mentioned in a COP communique.

For Ogunbiyi, COP27 is a critical moment for “balancing the needs of developing and emerging economies with the [climate] aspirations we’ve made internationally”.

“We have to get this right,” she says. “The narrative has to be on sustainable development. There cannot be a choice between climate and economy.” Some nations are pitting sustainability and development against each other already (or perhaps a better word would be ‘again’). This was seen in statements from nations such as Saudi Arabia at COP26 and, in the run-up to COP27, this approach is growing in popularity among some parts of the global south. August saw reports that the African Union of 55 nations was planning to advocate for increased fossil fuel explorations in the name of development. These reports stood in contrast to the tireless work of some African nations to advocate for renewables.

A mix of context-specific solutions

Ogunbiyi recognises why the African Union is pushing this narrative. It argues that it is hypocritical of developed nations to have generated such great levels of fossil fuel emissions in the past to develop, then look down on others for following suit. This is particularly the case given that the UK government and those of other wealthy nations have been investing in fossil fuels overseas for decades, partly so they can import more.

But she emphasises that this should not be an ‘all or nothing’ discussion, telling edie: “We all know that we should not fully develop with fossil fuels anymore. I don’t think anyone is having those conversations. The conversations which are being had are these nations saying ‘even if you want us to do renewables, getting our people out of poverty has to be top of the agenda in our energy transition’.

“I feel that, sometimes, we completely miss listening to people and tell them outright that, ‘no, you can’t do that’…. The conversation should be about saying, ‘this is the pathway that you should follow, and can we tweak it to suit your specific development agenda’.”

“The poorest countries with the least amount of money available are not going to leapfrog. We need to stop that narrative because it’s dangerous. We have all the clean energy technologies we need today to provide energy to these people, so let’s focus on that.”

The technologies which Ogunbiyi mentions specifically are solar for off-grid communities, such as microgrid solutions and generation kits for homes, and energy storage. As IRENA has repeatedly stated, these solar solutions are low-cost, providing power at costs lower than the global average while also providing high-quality services.

Ogunbiyi also emphasises the opportunities for nations to create well-paid jobs and improve their economies by localising “assembly, if not manufacturing” of clean energy technologies. This could also help to build-in resilience globally by ensuring that buyers have the option to choose suppliers in different geographies.

Overall, she believes that these actions can and should be taken through the collaboration of communities, NGOs and the private sector, even if policy is playing catch-up. She says: “We live in a world where projects drive policy – not the other way around. You are not going to get a perfect policy environment off the bat, and policymakers have four-year terms. We often don’t have this in developed countries, so we won’t get it in the developing world. We need to be flexible about our approach.”

Of course, finance is needed for these projects. The IEA stated last year that some $150bn was invested in clean energy in developing economies in 2020, but that this figure will need to hit $1trn by 2030 if the Paris Agreement’s 1.5C pathway is to be delivered and global net-zero achieved by mid-century.

As we approach COP27, the IEA worked with IRENA to track decarbonisation progress in key energy-related sectors covering 60% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions. The bodies concluded that while the world is not yet on track, strong progress in some areas can be replicated, with COP27 a key moment for harnessing the financial commitments needed to do so.

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