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To Enable Development, Start With Energy

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Next week, world leaders, businesses, and civil society organizations will convene in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development -- known as Rio+20 in honor of the Earth Summit 20 years ago. This conference is an important opportunity to make progress on our energy and climate challenges. It is also a chance to advance global efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which tackle some of the world's biggest problems, including poverty, women's and children's health, hunger and education.

Electricity and modern fuels are needed to achieve each of the MDGs. They can empower farmers to produce and store more food, allow children to study at night, save lives with refrigerated vaccines and medical care during difficult pregnancies, enable safe drinking water, and reduce pollution.

While access to modern energy services is critical to the MDGs, to date it has been a silent partner, often neglected in policy and practice. Today, 1.3 billion people have no electricity, and another billion have it only intermittently. More than double that number -- nearly 3 billion people -- still use firewood, charcoal and animal waste for cooking and heating. In many countries, women bear the physically demanding and time-consuming burden of gathering fuel and water, sometimes at great personal risk. The World Health Organization says that exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires is one of the top five threats to public health in developing countries, causing nearly 2 million premature deaths annually.

These deficits are costly to economic development, human health, the empowerment of women, and the environment -- but where there are challenges, there are also opportunities. By deploying sustainable energy solutions, we can promote sustainable development while growing the global economy and protecting the planet for future generations.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made sustainable development a priority and has proposed a global initiative on "Sustainable Energy for All." He has called on the world to support three ambitious, but achievable, objectives by 2030:

  • Ensuring universal access to modern energy services;
  • Doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and
  • Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.

Taken together, the Sustainable Energy for All objectives can act as a catalyst to global economic growth and make possible a transformative change in energy development. Deploying advanced energy technologies that are increasingly competitive with conventional alternatives may enable some countries to bypass costly and polluting technologies and leapfrog to a more sustainable distributed energy system. Meanwhile, industrialized countries can modernize their infrastructure to use energy more efficiently and diversify their energy sources, reducing the need for expensive energy imports.

Significant capital will be needed to make a global transition to low-carbon energy systems -- on the order of $500 billion a year, according to the International Energy Agency -- but the energy sector is already large and accustomed to dealing with such capital demands, and those sums represent an investment opportunity, not a demand on governments. Indeed, the payoff for these investments will touch everyone's lives -- from a cleaner environment to greater economic opportunity to better health to improved conditions for women. Energy has the power to change lives.

Next week at Rio+20, the global community has the chance to make real progress toward a sustainable energy future. Governments, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and other groups will announce new commitments to action on Sustainable Energy for All that will bring us closer to "the future we want" -- the slogan of Rio+20. This can be an important moment for leaders from across the world to join Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in supporting sustainable energy as the essential precondition to sustainable development, mitigation of climate change and achievement of the MDGs.

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Timothy E. Wirth is President of the Better World Fund and the United Nations Foundation and a member of the Secretary-General's High-level Group on Sustainable Energy for All. He previously served in the U.S. House and Senate and as the Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs.