Clean energy is vital to the Covid-19 response in the world’s poorest countries

Comment: Renewable mini-grids can power health facilities and irrigation systems, making communities more resilient to future pandemics and climate shocks

Installing a solar panel (Photo: BudapestBamako/Flickr)

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The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken governments and people across the globe. It has overwhelmed health systems and hurt the lives and livelihoods of those most vulnerable, destabilised financial markets, triggered crises in oil and energy markets, and caused major disruption to economic activities.

The impacts so far have been profound, yet for many countries and people the worst is still to come. At greatest risk are the poor and vulnerable, and countries with limited capabilities and resources.

The crisis has exposed the highly interconnected nature of our world and the importance of building more inclusive, resilient and equitable economies and societies.

With limited exceptions, the pandemic reveals that all countries – irrespective of wealth, capacity, technology or infrastructure – were completely unprepared to mount a swift and effective response of the scale needed.

There is no doubt that in the immediate term, the priority must remain controlling the outbreak, saving lives and limiting cascading adverse impacts.

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As part of the response, governments, particularly those in wealthy countries (e.g. members of the G7 and G20), are also considering packages to stimulate the economy and enable recovery, with a view to longer-term economic prosperity.

Yet, in the least developed countries (LDCs), where the economy is dominated by the informal sector, responses will remain haphazard at best, with efforts only concentrated on how to manage the immediate risks created by the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic teaches us several vital lessons and presents a possible path forward for more resilient and prosperous societies:

  • Most countries have not built adequate response strategies and systems to deal with global crises, and that capacity is lower in the least developed countries;
  • The vast amounts of government stimulus and recovering spending occurring as a result of the pandemic presents an opportunity for investment in new development courses that are truly people-centred and sustainable; and
  • For the poorest countries, recovery efforts will need to be complemented by coordinated global support, based on inclusivity and human solidarity.

These lessons, if taken on board, should improve health outcomes, while setting the stage for longer-term development that enables wellbeing for all.

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An essential part of the response measures to the crisis is the fundamental question of energy as the critical enabler of development and good health. Shifting from dirty to clean energy is a vital step towards integrating health, energy, climate and other priorities. Pollution from fossil fuels kills millions and has worsened the effect of previous respiratory diseases. The health impacts of escalating climate heating are unimaginable.

The model of energy provision is key. Decentralised, demand-driven renewable energy can power rural and peri-urban health facilities and systems for sanitation and hygiene, and enable effective irrigation and farming everywhere. Better access to clean energy makes communities more resilient to health and other shocks, and is essential for economic development.

The LDCs are the 47 poorest countries in the world, and face significant structural challenges to sustainable development. In the context of the Paris Agreement, aligned with the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and their national development priorities, they are pioneering an approach to the energy transformation that can serve as a model for poorer and wealthier countries alike.

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However, solidarity and adequate support will be required in enabling LDCs to bring this vision to life, to build a more resilient post-Covid-19 society.

Through their “Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Initiative” (REEEI), the LDCs are calling for a more integrated approach to energy and development. The approach focuses on three main goals.

  • It calls for 100% access to sufficient, affordable, modern and clean energy by all citizens in LDCs by 2030, recognising that access to energy is a key to meeting all needs, including those relating to public health.
  • Second, it seeks 100% electricity from renewable energy sources in all LDCs by 2050 latest, that caters to all needs of their citizens, social services and industries – focusing on low-carbon energy systems that are people-entered and help to curb climate change.
  • And third, it demands 100% utilisation of energy efficiency potential through full implementation of best practice measures and planning by 2040. It reflects that saving energy saves money, and liberates both energy and funding for other important goals.

This approach, pioneered by the poorest countries, includes elements that could be emulated by other countries as part of their just recovery plans.

All countries must move as rapidly as possible away from centralised fossil fuel-based energy systems towards more decentralised 100% renewable energy if we are to have any chance of keeping global heating below 1.5C or 2C.

The renewable energy system of tomorrow can also support the development of healthier, more resilient, prosperous and equal societies. The LDC REEEI specifically outlines a vision not only of changing fuels, but of moving to new people-centred, smart, distributed and mainly decentralised energy systems.

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Fortunately, sun and wind exist everywhere and most LDCs have an abundance of these and other renewable energy sources. Renewable energy can be harnessed by communities, cooperatives, small-sized farmers, households, schools, hospitals and companies of different sizes everywhere.

These systems allow many consumers to also become producers of energy. Small-scale farming – the backbone of LDC economies – can become more resilient through locally available and controlled energy that drives solar pumps for irrigation, powers refrigeration and enables processing and transportation to local markets.

Locally produced and controlled energy will ensure clean water, as well as functioning health clinics and schools. Decentralised systems enable people to work remotely, localise production and become more resilient – all essential protections against future pandemics.

The Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that decentralised energy systems have enabled the delivery of reliable services at local needs for social services as well as sustaining local economies.

Through the initiative LDCs can avoid the rich countries’ detour into heavily centralised and fossil fuel dependent energy systems. Rather, their “leapfrogging” directly to this new energy model gives them the benefit of the latecomer.

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While LDCs can build appropriate infrastructure bottom-up, rich and wealthy countries must transform, retire and dismount much of their dead-end fossil fuel investments.

Importantly, for the poorest countries efforts to cope with and recover from the crisis should also align with priorities set out in international agreements such as the Istanbul Programme of Action, the UN Agenda 2030 on Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Ultimately rich and poor countries will need to converge – both in terms of achieving zero-carbon energy systems, and in terms of highly unequal per capita energy use. This formidable human endeavour must be achieved on a short timeframe to avert climate crisis.

While the LDC REEEI framework outlines a genuinely LDC-initiated effort with our countries in the driving seat, its implementation can only succeed through genuine collaboration and international support. The approach outlines a model for driving targeted public investments, climate finance and economic recovery measures where LDCs define their destiny and visions but the wealthier countries contribute their fair share.

The current, intertwining crises of health, development and climate provide an opportunity for LDCs to take leadership to inspire both each other and the rest of the world. Just as some LDCs have already demonstrated, it is indeed possible to formulate and begin implementing alternative development trajectories that firmly prioritise happiness and sustainability squarely at the centre of policy-making.

The initial phase of the crisis already teaches us important lessons. It demonstrates that early and informed action by leaders can save lives, costs and impacts. It has disclosed that governments can take action at scale, that public resources can be mobilised, that behavioural change is possible, and that people will answer crises with solidarity.

Support on a massive scale is now required to enable the LDCs to grapple with the immediate Covid-19 crisis, while simultaneously planning for a longer-term recovery that eliminates poverty and builds more resilient low-carbon economies and societies.

Tosi Mpanu Mpanu is ambassador for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and political champion of the REEEI. Youba Sokona is a Malian professor of sustainable development at the South Centre and vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Yacob Mulugetta is an Ethiopian professor of energy and development policy at University College London and an IPCC AR6 lead author.

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