16 February 2016
2015 Sustainable Energy Year in Review
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
story highlights

In September 2015, the world's governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including SDG 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

In September 2015, the world’s governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” A few months later, governments also adopted the Paris Agreement, which calls for “holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C.” This goal, along with other provisions in the Agreement, is expected, or at least hoped, to spur a transformative shift to a sustainable energy system.

In many ways, 2014 had already laid the foundation for the energy agenda that was incorporated into the SDGs and the Paris Agreement. As we noted last year, 2014 was a year of setting ambitious goals and commitments, with the UN Climate Summit in September 2014 ushering in a wave of commitments, many in the energy sector, from civil society, companies and governments. In addition, the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) Forum and the UN Decade of Sustainable Energy for All 2014-2024 were launched, creating, as the UN Secretary-General put it, a “firm foundation” for the energy SDG.

Indeed, the SDG 7 Targets align closely with the SE4All goals of achieving universal energy access, doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the world’s energy mix.

With the energy agenda largely set in 2014, how did governments advance their planning and implementation under the energy access, energy efficiency and renewables goals during 2015? This review seeks to answer that question, looking back at the key stories from 2015 on the Sustainable Energy Policy & Practice knowledgebase.

Energy Access

The Second SE4All Forum heightened expectations for 2015 to be a pivotal year for energy access. At the Forum, over 100 countries made commitments to achieve SDG 7, underscoring universal energy access as a goal equal to the goals on renewable energy and energy efficiency. Through its Forum, regional and thematic hubs, and a growing number of partnerships, SE4All stepped into the global facilitative role it solidified in 2014. One of the most significant signs that these partnerships are bearing fruit was the adoption by the Group of 20 (G20) of the Energy Access Working Plan, a voluntary collaboration framework coordinated by SE4All to fight energy poverty by sharing knowledge and strengthening existing initiatives.

Civil society continued to press for an inclusive SE4All agenda, and off-grid access in particular, through the SE4All Energy Access Practitioners Network and Alliance of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) for Clean Energy Access (ACCESS). A number of expert studies also helped bring off-grid energy into the spotlight. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) found that 60% of the additional generation necessary to achieve universal electricity access must come from off-grid sources. The Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) estimated the global market for off-grid appliances will grow nearly ten-fold by 2020 to US$4.7 billion, driven by “rapid, significant growth” in consumer spending on off-grid fans, televisions and refrigerators.

Regional commitments and initiatives for reducing energy poverty centered on Africa, with a smaller number of initiatives targeting South Asia and Latin America. In recognition of the urgent need to eliminate energy poverty in these regions, 3,600 government, business, and civil society representatives from 82 countries adopted the South African International Renewable Energy Conference (SAIREC) Declaration. The Declaration calls for a diverse range of grid and off-grid technologies; skills transfer; local investment; increasing financial resources for renewable energy; and other measures to secure electricity access for 1.3 billion people, 621 million of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa, and access to clean energy for cooking for 2.9 billion people.

Energy access became a key goal of several major initiatives launched during the Paris climate change negotiations, most notably the US$20 billion Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI). The initiative aims to install at least 10 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy generation on the continent by 2020, and is being led by the commission of the African Union, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African Group of Negotiators, the African Development Bank (AfDB), the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and IRENA.

The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) Sustainable Energy Policy and High Level Forum launched the West African Clean Energy Corridor and ECOWAS SE4All Network, and explored options for ECOWAS countries to finance and implement their SE4All Action Agendas. AfDB launched the ‘New Deal for Africa, aimed at solving Africa’s energy deficit and achieving universal energy access by 2025.

Energy Efficiency

2015 proved to be a significant year for energy efficiency, as major intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) like the G20, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) ramped up efforts needed to achieve the SDGs and Paris climate change targets. While the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimated that meeting all countries’ intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs) to the UNFCCC would require a massive investment of US$13.5 trillion in energy efficiency and low-carbon technology through 2030, the Agency also determined that energy efficiency improvements have already saved US$5.7 trillion over the last 25 years.

For the first time, the G20 called for greater international collaboration on energy efficiency by adopting the G20 Energy Efficiency Action Plan, which contains six main streams: transport, networked devices, buildings, industrial energy management, electricity generation and finance. In adopting the Plan, ministers recognized a new set of G20 Energy Principles agreed to in 2014 underscoring the need for strategic cooperation on energy issues, as well as a ‘Report on the Voluntary Implementation of the Energy Efficiency Action Plan’ prepared by the International Partnership for Energy Efficiency Cooperation (IPEEC). Other notable reports released over the year addressed energy efficiency across a variety of themes, such as buildings, cities, best practices and co-benefits.

The financial community responded as well, with institutions from 42 countries endorsing the Statement by Financial Institutions on Energy Efficiency agreed to at the Istanbul Energy Efficiency Finance Forum. By signing the Statement, institutions ranging from microfinance organizations to national and global banks pledged to scale up investments through a variety of measures, including: integrating energy efficiency finance in operations; guiding clients toward energy savings; tracking investments; and intensifying cooperation with development institutions, in particular, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and UNEP Finance Initiative (UNEP FI).

At a regional level, ministers at the APEC Economic Leaders Meeting agreed to the Manila Declaration, which, inter alia, reaffirms their aspirational goal of reducing energy intensity by 45% by 2030. CARICOM inaugurated the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CCREEE) in Barbados, which joins a worldwide network of regional sustainable energy centers and focuses on helping Member States to fulfill their INDCs and facilitate achievement of the SE4All goals.

On capacity building, SE4All continued to facilitate the rollout of energy efficiency measures on a variety of fronts, including the development of national energy efficiency roadmaps and provision of strategic guidance to countries and the private sector on leapfrogging to high-efficiency products. In collaboration with the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), the Institute for Industrial Productivity (IIP) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), SE4All launched the Industrial Energy Efficiency Accelerator, the sixth sectoral initiative under its Global Energy Efficiency Accelerator Platform.

Renewable Energy

On planning for renewable energy at the global scale, both the CEM and the International Forum on Energy for Sustainable Development announced actions to address challenges facing a clean energy transition and SDG implementation. At the Forum, the UN Regional Commissions signed the ‘Yerevan Statement of Common Action,’ in anticipation of the adoption of the 2030 Agenda and to initiate implementation of the Hammamet Declaration, a call adopted in 2014 to accelerate the transition to a new, sustainable and fair energy system. IGOs continued to support these and other high-level action plans, in part by designing strategies for harnessing highly promising solutions that still require substantial scaling, such as hydrogen and fuel cells, geothermal energy and reforming fossil fuel subsidies to promote clean energy.

Regional planning played an important role in 2015 as well, with a number of notable regional coordination efforts launched. An IRENA conference kicked off the Martinique Plan for Renewable Energy Deployment on Islands, which outlines practical steps for accelerated renewable energy adoption on small island developing States (SIDS). The UN Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD) weighed in with policy recommendations for renewable energy transitions in Indian Ocean and Atlantic African coast SIDS, and IRENA continued its renewables readiness assessments, including for Fiji, Marshall Islands and Vanuatu. In Africa, the African and West African Energy Leaders Groups were launched, and both IRENA and the Africa Progress Panel recommended steps to boosting renewables’ growth on the continent.

On implementing the accelerated roll-out of renewables, 2015 saw the release of many reports gauging what ground had been gained in 2014 and early 2015. At a global scale, the good news included the decoupling of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and economic growth, record highs in solar and wind installations, growth in renewable energy industry jobs, and accelerated growth in renewables overall. Meanwhile the bad news showed a slowing rate in clean energy technology deployment that will make it difficult to stay below the 2°C limit, “insufficient progress” towards meeting SE4All’s three goals despite expectations that renewables will be the leading new energy supply by the 2030s, and untapped innovation potential due to underinvestment in clean energy research and development (R&D).

Regionally, implementation saw gains in the EU where it was reported that renewable energy met 15% of energy demand in 2013 and is expected to hit the 20% mark by 2020. However, it was Asia that IEA and the World Bank ranked as the top sustainable energy performer, noting that the continent expanded modern renewable energy at 8% annually during 2010-2012. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) further reported that the Asia-Pacific is on track to meet the SE4All goals, though possibly not by 2030.

The year was not without announcements of new initiatives, commitments and goals that will conceivably lead to concrete implementation on the ground. The CEM launched the Clean Energy Grid Integration Network to help governments enable high levels of renewable energy generation in electricity systems. India and France spearheaded an International Solar Energy Alliance to mobilize US$1 trillion by 2030 to scale up solar energy deployment. Finally, 20 major economies plan to double clean energy R&D over five years through ‘Mission Innovation.’

Looking Ahead

Considering the number of intergovernmental declarations, initiatives, plans, reports and implementing actions centered around energy access, energy efficiency and renewable energy in 2015, it is clear that the three goals, first adopted under SE4All and further enshrined in the SDGs, have been fully embraced by the international community. The year 2015 was filled with governments charting the course toward achieving these goals, whether through identifying barriers, establishing capacity-building mechanisms or investing in development and deployment of technology.

Still, it would be an understatement to say that there is need for faster progress, and sometimes hard-won steps forward in one area are greeted with steps backward in another. Many have dubbed 2016 as the “year of implementation” as governments turn toward the task of operationalizing the SDGs and the Paris Agreement, as well as 2015 agreements on financing for development (FfD) and disaster risk reduction (DRR). While implementation toward sustainable energy goals was already well underway in 2015 and before, the renewed focus on implementation will be a welcome boost to the current momentum. A much-needed boost, in fact, if the world is to ensure universal energy access, double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency and double renewables’ share in the energy mix, all by 2030.

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