Morgan Bazilian, Deputy Director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, warns that neglecting the need for rapid and scaled-up provision of modern energy services will dim an otherwise bright future for developing economies. The interview was carried out by the Risk Response Network’s “What if?” series.

Why is this issue on your radar at the moment?
The world’s food, energy and water resources are already experiencing significant stresses and shortfalls. Yet, in the next 20 years, demand for these services is projected to increase dramatically as populations and economies grow. Just imagine 30% of the world still struggling for basic services in 2030. That’s 2 billion people unable to flip a light switch, find clean drinking water, or lead healthy, productive lives – an unacceptable proposition and one that deeply articulates existing global inequity.

What is mindboggling, and to an extent cause for optimism, is that there are no technical barriers to providing universal access to energy services. The necessary systems, tools and technologies are understood around the globe. The laws of physics apply to sub-Saharan Africa just as they do to Washington DC. The issue here has been a combination of a lack of political prioritization, funding constraints, and insufficient human and institutional capacity development

What signs have you seen where this scenario could materialize?
Looking at global energy-use trends, we come to a disturbing conclusion: currently around 1.3 billion people remain disadvantaged by a lack of electricity. It won’t take much to arrive at the worst case scenario. In fact, if we continue with business-as-usual, we’ll get to that point as a matter of course. The energy issue needs political prioritization and leadership to gather the requisite momentum if we are to break existing trends and achieve international goals. So what areas are we speaking of? The same ones as in any economy, namely: rural electricity solutions; modern grid infrastructure; and supply and demand efficiency.

Who would feel the impact the most?
It is widely accepted that a lack of access to energy services is a fundamental hindrance to human, social, and economic development. Populations in the developing world would certainly feel the impact most deeply, but repercussions could reverberate worldwide. As an example, a large percentage of the population in sub-Saharan Africa is under 30 – they are hungry for work, amenities and opportunity, just like all other young people.

What will the world look like in 2030 if we don’t achieve energy services goals?
The world could become a much more dangerous and anxious place. Abject poverty and an acute lack of medical and education services would be the norm. We are already seeing mass urbanization, but if that continues unabated because of the misery of living in slums, social tensions could hit an all-time high. We would also see increased stress in areas already burdened by a lack of strong governance systems and democratic institutions. The implicit social contract among the countries of the world would have been broken and the Millennium Development Goals, and whatever follows, them would be undermined.

What’s the best way to avoid a backlash against energy goals by those who believe improving services in the developing world will only increase resource depletion?
This is not a position held by many people, at least not publicly. The conflict is more subtle and implicit. In some cases, there is a push by the West to prioritize issues of environment – like resource depletion – over energy access. This is a false dichotomy though. The priority must be providing necessary services and working with governments and business and local populations to ensure that they are sustainable, economically and environmentally. As an example, initial analysis of the impacts on global energy demand and greenhouse gas emissions shows them to be minor. As the economies and services grow, emissions will increase, but good design can help ensure that the new systems take advantage of our understanding of technologies like smart grids, clean energy systems and energy efficiency.

How are governments and the public and private sector working together to address this issue?
As public sector intervention is critical, we need to look at how institutions and people are trained and educated as a first priority. The cliché that we must leverage the power and innovation of the private sector to use the limited public sector funding available is roughly accurate. Still, history shows that the provision (including funding) of basic infrastructure and services has initially been a public sector role. That remains the case in many of these countries and must be the core focus in the short term. A small, but growing number of businesses, large and small, are taking action on water, food and energy poverty; a few are even looking into the nexus of these highly interlinked issues. Some significant thinking has come out of the World Economic Forum on how this nexus will impact not just business, but also society and the planet as a whole. 

How optimistic are you about the future of energy services?
Cautiously optimistic. There are good things happening. Take the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative. It was launched by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and brings all key actors to the table to make sustainable energy for all a reality by 2030. Governments are firmly committed. The private sector is as well. Now, after putting out these global energy aspirations, we can align planning, funding and policy. What we are really talking about is an enormous and unprecedented opportunity – new markets, wealth creation, engaged populations and innovative businesses.

Pictured:  An electric power station on the outskirts of Jammu, India. REUTERS/Mukesh Gupta

Morgan Bazilian is Deputy Director of the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis. He is a former Chief of Cabinet for the Minister of Energy of Ireland, as well as a Senior Energy Adviser at UNIDO and manager of UN-Energy. Brazilian helped shape the UN approach to Sustainable Energy for All, and was previously the lead climate change negotiator for the EU on low-carbon technology. He holds senior research affiliations at Cambridge University, the Global Green Growth Institute and IIASA. He is the author of “Analytical Methods for Energy Diversity and Security”.