MEXICO CITY –- If you are reading this article, you most likely have electricity and heat at home and never think of that fact as at all remarkable. But over 2 billion people -- one in three people on our planet -- have no access to modern energy to light and heat the dwellings in which they live.

The obstacles to energy access are not technical. We know how to build power systems, design modern cooking stoves, and meet energy demand efficiently. What is missing is a global commitment to move energy access up the political and development agendas.

Half of the world’s population uses solid fuel, such as wood, charcoal, or dung, for cooking. According to the World Health Organization, 1.6 million women and children die each year as a result of indoor smoke inhalation, more than from malaria. Add the pollutant emissions from such stoves, together with the deforestation that results from using firewood, and you have several pressing global challenges that can be tackled at once by closing the energy gap.

Efforts to close this gap have so far been insufficient in scale and scope, but a plan of action now exists, developed in recent months by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC). The Group brings together top UN officials and business executives, including from Edison International, Statoil, Suntech Holdings, and Vattenfall.

Through this innovative public-private partnership, we analyzed global energy access and recommended in our resulting report that the international community commit to universal access to modern energy services by 2030. The report also called for a 40 percent reduction in global energy intensity by 2030, which, if implemented, would reduce global energy intensity at approximately double the historical rate.
AGECC is now working on how best to deliver on the plan. This was the focus of the Group’s last meeting, held on July 15 in Mexico City. It was hosted by the Carlos Slim Foundation, which works in support of implementing the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in such areas as health, deforestation, and closing the digital divide.
Mexico will be the location for key UN climate talks later this year, and AGECC is interacting with the country’s energy ministry to ensure a coordinated and effective approach.

The financial implications of ensuring universal energy access are large, but not overwhelming when weighed against the enormous benefits. The International Energy Agency estimates that, over the next two decades, ensuring universal access to electricity would require around 10 percent of total annual investment in the energy sector, which can be mobilized by the private sector. Universal energy access is a new market opportunity, but one that needs the right support to thrive.

Many clean technologies are already available, so we are not talking about investing billions in research. It is a question of transferring the technologies and adapting them to local conditions and needs.
But increasing energy access is not only about supplying better, more efficient cooking stoves or light bulbs. To promote economic development and growth, energy services must also work in the interest of creating wealth and jobs by providing power for businesses and improving healthcare, education, and transportation.

In September, world leaders will meet at the UN to assess progress on the MDGs. While there is no goal on energy, it is central to meeting the other MDGs, especially those concerning poverty and hunger, universal education, and environmental sustainability.

Governments alone will not be able to deal with all of these challenges. We need a firm commitment from all sides: private businesses, academia, civil society, and international organizations and NGOs.

The deadline for delivering universal energy access is 2030. Will you join us?

Carlos Slim Helú is chairman of the Carlos Slim Helú Foundation and a member of AGECC. Kandeh K. Yumkella is director general of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, and chair of AGECC and UN-Energy. © Project Syndicate, 2010

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