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UN and Business Come Together to Discuss Sustainable Energy Partnerships

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UN and Business Come Together to Discuss Sustainable Energy Partnerships

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UN to Business: “We need you”.

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Thus said Robert Orr,the UN’s head of Policy Planning, in May at a luncheon hosted by the Business Council for the UN and the Permanent Mission of Denmark to the UN. The lunchtime discussion focused on how public-private partnerships can best drive action on the Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative. BCUN, the membership organization which engages and connects the business community to the UN, in partnership with the Permanent Mission of Denmark to the UN, convened a diverse mix of UN ambassadors, private sector partners and other stakeholders for a discussion of the Sustainable Energy for All initiative ahead of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). The discussion highlighted the potential of the initiative to be a successful model for UN public-private partnerships more broadly. 

Timothy E. Wirth, President of the UN Foundation, and a member of the Secretary-General’s High-level Group on Sustainable Energy for All, opened the discussion by introducing the initiative and highlighting the importance of energy to the UN’s overall development mission.  Ambassador Carsten Staur, who is the Permanent Representative of the Mission of Denmark to the UN, has been deeply involved in supporting the Secretary-General’s initiative. Ambassador Staur noted that while the Rio+20 negotiation process has been an uphill battle, commitments to action on Sustainable Energy for All expected to be put forward in Rio will represent a significant milestone for the UN in terms of multi-stakeholder cooperation. “Rio represents the three UN’s coming together,” he noted, “the three UN’s being the Member States, the UN Secretariat, and the third UN, or the ‘new UN’— all of the representatives of the private sector, NGOs, foundations, and the academic community”— who are working together to promote and implement this agenda.   

Orr, whom Wirth referred to as the quarterback of this effort on behalf of the Secretary-General,  noted that energy runs through “everything we do at the UN” and called it the ultimate sustainability issue, “so why has it taken us this long to put it at the center of the agenda? The fact that we are even having a debate about energy in the run-up to Rio is shocking, when the reality out there is that 1.4 billion people in the world – 1/5 of humanity—do not have access to energy services. That is not a 21st century reality that we care to see continue.” The good news, he added, is that we do know what to do and we do have the technology to reach the world’s 1.4 billion energy poor. However, we cannot only focus on the access question, Orr urged. Access has to come first, but we also must look at the initiative’s other two goals -- doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and doubling the use of renewable energy in the global mix. “For anyone worried that somehow we are talking about privileging renewables over other sources of energy,” Orr reassured the audience, “the fact is we need it all. We are talking about building an energy mix that will meet this expanding need, and therefore, expanding markets for all energy sources. It’s good for the planet; it’s also good for economies.”

Whatever governments agree to achieve in Rio, they will not able to achieve it alone.  “The UN can make the normative framework and bring together the interested parties, but we need you. We need investment. The capital is out there, now we must identify how to change the incentive structure. There are companies here that are doing very exciting things for their own business purposes, but that mesh almost perfectly with what we are trying to do globally,” noting that that is the heart of what makes partnerships truly work.  “Sustainable Energy for All is the business model for what I hope the UN’s partnering capacity could become over the next five years.

A panel discussion with two industry representatives – Clay Nesler, Vice President of Global Energy and Sustainability at Johnson Controls, and Donn Tice, Chairman and Chief Operating Officer at d. light design –followed.  The discussion was moderated by Sujeesh Krishnan, Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Sustainable Energy for All, who presented the types of commitments that companies are making, ranging from individual companies’ commitments to improving energy efficiency in their own operations to partner-based activities across multiple stakeholders.

Clay Nesler of Johnson Controls, a $40 billion global company operating in 150 countries, said that he became interested in the policy side of energy when realized the importance of policy in shaping investment in energy efficiency.  Nesler explained “we cannot afford to wait as long as we did in the U.S. to build the type of energy efficiency markets needed around the world. While we have the proven models to attract private capital”, he said. “We cannot afford to wait this long for the next success story.” 

A Toolkit for Developing Countries

Johnson Controls has engaged with both civil society actors and other private companies to produce a toolkit to aid developing countries to prioritize policies focused on energy efficiency. He has committed to update this toolkit for Rio with new sections focused on sustainable development, the green economy, and partnerships with the private sector. “Sustainable Energy for All is a wonderful opportunity to integrate the challenges in energy efficiency, energy access to all, and renewables, as this actually ends up being most cost-effective,” Nesler explained.  Johnson Controls has been working closely with the UN Foundation, which has brought together prominent but mostly disparate organizations working on energy efficiency around the world. “30 largely disconnected organizations all putting their weight behind the Sustainable Energy for All initiative is the best idea we’ve seen lately on getting together for a common cause,” Nesler observed.   

d.light design’s Donn Tice explained that his company’s slice of this massive problem is bringing affordable light and power to 100 million people in the developing world by 2020. “d.light design is a for-profit company with a social impact. We’re here to make money, but also to have a reach in the developing world that goes beyond just profit. It takes multiple solutions simultaneously to make any kind of reasonable dent.”  d.light design is currently on track to reach 30 million households by 2015.

A lively debate between the panel, Member State representatives, and private sector attendees followed. Connections were drawn between the energy and health sectors, noting for example, how simply bringing light to a medical clinic can save a mother’s life during childbirth. Others drew parallels to the food-water-energy nexus— all necessities for survival.  

Barriers to investment

One ambassador from an emerging country argued that the global community already produces enough resources, but that businesses are not eager to invest in developing countries like his. Tice, however, said  that companies like his are in fact quite excited about the potential to invest in these developing markets, but that there are currently barriers to renewable energy deployment, such as barriers and trade tariffs, which make it too difficult to compete with the domestic industries and fossil fuels. In order for renewables to have a chance, some of these barriers must be lifted.  “We don’t need to be subsidized; we just need equal opportunity and equal access to make a difference,” Tice implored. 

In response to the common question of “why focus on energy efficiency when we don’t all have basic access,” Nesler explained that it is actually an economic argument: for every dollar invested in efficiency, $2 or more are saved by renewables. “Thus, we are aiming to meet this challenge at the lowest possible cost.” “More energy is wasted in Africa than is needed to power the world,” another discussant pointed out, thereby pointing to the fact that the issue is more one of distribution than of mere access. Finally, in response to a query from an oil-producing but war-torn country, a panelist noted that the initiative is not a one-size-fits all strategy; solutions must be defined by the local needs of a country, and we need an “all of the above” approach to energy. Overall, most participants agreed that it is in everyone’s interest to lean towards cleaner, more efficient strategies going forward.

By Mara Herrmann.  Mara is a program associate with the United Nations Foundation, focusing on US-UN relations, UN reform, and post-2015 international development.