In preparation for the High-level Dialogue on Energy (HLDE), the Ministerial Thematic Forums for the HLDE launched reports prepared by five Technical Working Groups on the Dialogue’s five priority themes, providing recommendations for action. This policy brief reviews the Working Groups’ recommendations, discusses highlights from report launches, and looks at the road ahead.

The UN Secretary-General will convene the HLDE to promote implementation of energy-related goals and targets of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change and to accelerate ambition towards the achievement of SDG 7 (affordable and clean energy). Scheduled to take place in September 2021, the HLDE will convene at the summit level. The Dialogue will be the first global gathering on energy under the auspices of the UN General Assembly (UNGA) since the UN Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy in 1981.

Opening the Ministerial Thematic Forums, which took place virtually from 21-25 June 2021, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “running far behind in the race against time” to achieve SDG 7 by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050. HLDE Co-Chair Achim Steiner, Administrator of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), said that while the world “on the cusp of a historic tipping point,” it is “really up to us” “how fast and how fairly” a clean energy revolution happens.

The Ministerial Thematic Forums, launched five “theme reports” on:

  • energy access;
  • innovation, technology and data;
  • energy transition;
  • enabling SDGs through inclusive, just energy transitions; and
  • finance and investment.

During the Forums, stakeholders and ministers explored these thematic topics, and offered insights on gaps, needs, and priorities for action. The Forums also showcased over two dozen “energy compacts” by actors at all levels, setting actions and commitments they will undertake to help achieve SDG 7 and net-zero emissions. The ENB Summary of the meeting notes that the compacts seek to inspire a “steady stream” of such commitments between now and the HLDE to “demonstrate sufficient new will and commitment to prompt new waves of action to bridge the large gap that exists between the current reality and the aspirations in the SDG 7 targets.”

The SDG Knowledge Hub will feature a dedicated policy brief on stakeholder contributions to the HLDE process.

Energy Access

The theme report on energy access was prepared by the Technical Working Group led by UNDP, the UN Office for Least Developed, Landlocked and Small Island Developing States (OHRLLS), and the World Bank.

During the report’s launch, Steiner highlighted the need to put people at the center of discussions on energy systems and powering economies. According to the report, he said, access to clean cooking must increase from 66% to 100% by 2030, and access to electricity must increase from 82% in 2019 to 94% by 2025 and aim for 100% by 2030.

Fekitamoeloa Katoa ‘Utoikamanu, UN Under-Secretary-General and High Representative, OHRLLS, said available financing remains “significantly below what is required” to achieve universal access to energy in least developed countries (LDCs). She noted that the report calls for 50% of the annual global financing goal to go towards clean cooking and electricity access in LDCs.

Pablo Fajnzylber, World Bank, called for energy access that is more equitable and inclusive, and for a bolder approach to accelerate clean energy access for cooking.

The report makes eight priority recommendations for actions between now and 2050 to achieve net-zero energy systems that ensure universal access to clean and affordable electricity and clean cooking solutions for all:

  • Align energy policy and investment with energy transition pathways that realize universal access to electricity and clean cooking by 2030;
  • Prioritize and coordinate political commitments and financing to accelerate access to clean cooking, while building synergies with electrification efforts;
  • Position universal access to energy as a key enabler and driver of inclusive, sustainable, and resilient economic recovery and growth and as an integral part of the transition to a just net-zero-emissions energy system;
  • Put people at the center of efforts to deliver universal energy;
  • The “last mile” of energy access must become the “first mile” to be tackled;
  • Support enterprises with innovative, cost-effective, and scalable energy access business models so that delivery of clean cooking and electricity solutions can be accelerated to households, businesses, and community facilities;
  • Accelerate knowledge exchange, capacity building, partnership building, and innovation; and
  • Improve the availability and quality of open-source, verifiable energy information and data pertinent to national, subnational, and local contexts.

Innovation, Technology and Data

Representatives of the Technical Working Group’s co-lead organizations – the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), the UN Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), and the UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) – officially launched the theme report on innovation, technology and data.

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director, UN-Habitat, called for greater cooperation and collaboration, as well as for promotion of innovation in policy and planning, technology, business models, and finance.

Li Yong, Director General, UNIDO, noted the challenge of accelerating the pace and scale of clean energy technology development and deployment, given that some technologies do not yet exist and some existing technologies, such as those using hydrogen, still await demonstration and commercialization. He called for national policies to unlock investment in proven technologies, such as renewable energy, and address the needs of the end-use sectors.

Ismahane Elouafi, FAO, said innovation is critical for ending poverty and hunger, noting that there is very little innovation or scaling up of innovation at the level of smallholder farmers because it is too costly.

The theme report offers the following five priority recommendations:

  • Align energy innovation governance and international cooperation with meeting the targets for 2030 and 2050;
  • Expand the supply of energy innovation that addresses key gaps;
  • Increase the demand for clean and sustainable energy technologies and innovation;
  • Leverage digitalization for innovation, while addressing the digital divide; and
  • Improve the collection, management, and application of data and data systems.

Energy Transition

The theme report on energy transition was launched by representatives of the Technical Working Group’s co-lead organizations – the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

Francisco La Camera, Director General, IRENA, said that while transition must be accomplished in the shortest possible time, the emerging energy system has deep implications for economies and society, and therefore the task is to increase its benefits and minimize its negative consequences. He cautioned that the inequality gap could widen, and called for supporting the most vulnerable countries “without delay.”

Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UNEP, said energy poverty is unacceptable, and support is required to “connect the unconnected” with green energy. She called for increasing efficiency in designing new buildings and retrofitting existing buildings to reduce the energy burden. Andersen noted that significantly raising energy efficiency can reduce emissions quickly and cost-effectively.

Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, Executive Secretary, ESCAP, advocated trading renewable energy surpluses through cross-border power grids, saying this can foster decarbonization, increase access to more affordable energy, enhance energy systems’ resilience to extreme risks, and foster green development and jobs. She called for ending fossil fuel subsidies.

The theme report puts forward 11 priority recommendations, of which four highlight interlinkages with specific SDGs and one pertains to SDG 7 specifically. These recommendations are:

  • Rapidly scale-up deployment of available energy transition solutions to reach 8000 GW of renewables by 2030 with due consideration to different contributions by individual countries;
  • Increase the average annual rate of energy efficiency improvement from the current 0.8% to 3% through the implementation of all available technologies while supporting further innovation;
  • Invest in physical infrastructure to enable the energy transition;
  • Countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) should phase out coal by 2030 and redirect international energy financing towards the transition. Non-OECD countries should phase out coal by 2040;
  • Mainstream energy policies into economic, industrial, labor, educational, and social strategies;
  • Establish medium- and long-term integrated energy planning strategies, define decarbonization targets, and adapt policies and regulations to shape energy systems that boost sustainable development;
  • Create regional energy markets to facilitate the integration of renewables, promote cross-border power grid connectivity and trade, and further reduce costs through economies of scale (interlinkages with SDG 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure));
  • Intensify international co-operation on energy transition to meet the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and avoid future catastrophic climate change impacts (interlinkages with SDG 10 (reduced inequalities);
  • Develop sustainable transport roadmaps (interlinkages with SDG 9 and SDG 11 (sustainable cities and communities));
  • Tailor labor and social protection policies to the specific needs of each region and country (interlinkages with SDG 4 (quality education) and SDG 8 (decent work and economic growth)); and
  • Make the energy transition a participatory enterprise (SDG 7).

Enabling SDGs through Inclusive, Just Energy Transitions

The lead organizations for the Technical Working Group on Enabling SDGs through Inclusive, Just Energy Transitions were the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA), the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), and the World Health Organization (WHO). Their representatives formally launched the theme report on the topic.

Liu Zhenmin, UN Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs, said the report outlines benefits from energy transition while recognizing potential trade-offs with other SDGs. He stressed the need to ensure benefit sharing by everyone and to design science-based plans to maximize co-benefits and minimize trade-offs.

Rola Dashti, Executive Secretary, ESCWA, said conflict and instability undermine action for a just and inclusive energy transition. Among other obstacles she cited:

  • insufficient political and institutional commitment;
  • inadequate integrated policies supporting green ecosystems and mainstreaming strategies;
  • lack of enforceable regulations or positive incentives;
  • insufficient funding for entrepreneurship;
  • distrust in renewable technologies;
  • lack of technical skills; and
  • an increasing, unsustainable demand for natural resources.

Dashti emphasized the need to enhance international collaboration in technology and innovation.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, WHO, said one billion people are still served by healthcare facilities with no access to electricity. He said the report recommends maximizing the energy transition, including for public health, jobs, food, youth empowerment, and gender equality. He called for making 2021 a “year of energy action.”

The eight priority recommendations contained in the theme report on enabling SDGs through inclusive, just energy transitions are:

  • Every country and region should integrate achievement of the SDGs as a guiding framework into the planning and implementation of their own transition pathways towards clean and sustainable energy;
  • Implement a sustainable energy transition strategy with social equity and inclusiveness at its center to enable the SDGs;
  • Integrate access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy, including access to electricity and clean cooking, as the central pillar of inclusive, just energy transition strategies;
  • Accelerate the integration of gender equity into energy transition pathways;
  • Enable transformational change by promoting systemic approaches in the energy transition to achieving the SDGs and the climate goals, while ensuring energy security;
  • Track progress and integrate an Energy for SDG Impact Framework into energy transition strategies;
  • Strengthen multi-stakeholder partnerships to leverage the transformational potential of energy for enabling the SDGs; and
  • Ensure that the energy transition pathways are sustainably designed and implemented to enhance synergies and reduce trade-offs with other SDGs.

Finance and Investment

Representatives of the lead organizations for the Technical Working Group on Finance and Investment – the European Investment Bank (EIB), the International Energy Agency (IEA), and the UN Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) – launched the theme report.

Werner Hoyer, President, EIB, stressed the importance of a taxonomy for green financing and a broad market open to all issues.

Vera Songwe, Executive Secretary, UNECA, said capacity in Africa needs to double by 2030 and quintuple by 2050, with the private sector playing an important role. She stressed: green investment; alignment with the Paris Agreement, SDG 7, and net-zero goals; public-private cooperation; and a robust project pipeline to attract private capital.

Mary Warlick, IEA, noted that although investment has risen since 2020, it still lags in emerging economies. She called for deploying existing clean energies and investing in new technology innovation, and for catalyzing private capital through international public financing.

The nine priority recommendations articulated in the theme report are as follows:

  • Accelerate delivery of public finance in support of sustainable energy goals;
  • Regain the momentum lost on energy access investments during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Align energy financing with all dimensions of the Paris Agreement;
  • Governments should work with relevant stakeholders to ensure that the realization of SDG 7 and the global energy transition leaves no one behind;
  • Enhance local currency funding and support for the deepening of domestic capital markets to achieve SDG 7;
  • Make better use of blended finance schemes to mobilize and maximize private capital for clean energy investments and innovative energy technologies;
  • Correct market-distorting subsidies and address the lack of carbon pricing frameworks and inadequate accounting of environmental externalities that hold back sustainable investment;
  • De-risk projects and fix regulatory barriers to ensure market openness, attractiveness, and readiness for private sector finance; and
  • Develop new mechanisms to link sustainable finance with opportunities to support SDG 7 and reward ambitious energy transition strategies.

The Road Ahead

The next step on the road to realizing SDG 7 is the HLDE. The ENB analysis of the Ministerial Thematic Forums notes that the Dialogue is expected to produce two main outcomes: a global roadmap for concrete actions needed to achieve SDG 7; and more energy compacts setting out voluntary commitments and actions. The roadmap will be informed by the preparatory work done by the Technical Working Groups and the Ministerial Thematic Forums.

The ENB analysis highlights the importance of international cooperation and collaboration over competition in the technology innovation space. Energy compacts announced during the Forums, it notes, “might be seen as a way of pursuing the international ‘cooperation’ necessary to achieve targets.” As more energy compacts emerge on the way to the HLDE, it remains to be seen whether “new levels of action and commitment to delivering the sustainable energy goals,” accompanied by a clear roadmap for action, will be ambitious enough to achieve SDG 7 and net-zero emissions.