The Sustainable Energy for All Initiative and Climate Change Mitigation

by Kandeh Yumkella1, Nebojša Nakicenovic2, Morgan Bazilian3 and Jessica Jewell4

This paper briefly explores the climate change mitigation benefits from the goals of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Initiative. In doing so, it relies on the analytical work and scenarios of the forthcoming Global Energy Assessment.5

Energy powers human progress, from job generation to economic competitiveness, from strengthening security to empowering women, energy is the great integrator: it cuts across all sectors and lies at the heart of all countries’ core interests. Now more than ever, the world needs to ensure that the benefits of modern energy are available to all and that energy is provided as cleanly and efficiently as possible. This is a matter of equity, first and foremost, but it is also an issue of urgent practical importance – this is the impetus for the UN Secretary-General’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative.

This initiative was launched in a time of great economic uncertainty, great inequity, high urbanisation, and high youth unemployment. It is also a time where there is emerging consensus on the need to act cohesively and urgently towards global issues such as sustainable development and climate change. How we capture opportunities for wealth and job creation, for education and local manufacturing will be the key to unlock any real revolution. Addressing a transition to a radically different, and inclusive, energy system is a generational challenge. To this end, Economist Jeremy Rifkin cites6 numerous interacting crises as the impetus for, “a new economic narrative.”

The UN responds

Three linked objectives underpin the goal of achieving Sustainable Energy for All by 2030:

1. Ensuring universal access to modern energy services

2. Doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency

3. Doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix

These three objectives are mutually reinforcing. Increasingly affordable renewable energy technologies are bringing modern energy services to rural communities where extension of the conventional electric power grid would be prohibitively expensive and impractical. More efficient devices for lighting and other applications require less energy and thus reduce the amount of power needed to support them. And finally, the alternative – unconstrained expansion of today’s conventional fossil fuel-based energy systems – would lock-in a long-term infrastructure commitment to an unsustainable emissions path for the world’s climate.

Climate impacts of Sustainable Energy for All

Although the primary focus of the Sustainable Energy for All Initiative is not climate change mitigation, achieving the three objectives is consistent with limiting the increase in mean global temperature to below two degrees Celsius in the long run. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA’s) World Energy Outlook 2011 finds that early investments in sustainable energy pays off: for every US$ 1 of investment undertaken in the power sector before 2020, US$ 4.30 in spending to compensate for increased emissions can be avoided after 2020. In addition, to enable at least basic levels of energy access for all has minimal implications for greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Figure 1).7


Figure 1 – Additional energy demand and CO2 emissions from the IEA’s Energy for All Case compared with the New Policies Scenario (IEA, 2011)

The Sustainable Energy for All objectives are aligned with pathways that would stabilize global temperature. Figures 2 and 3 show an energy future where all the Sustainable Energy for All objectives are met. We can compare this scenario to a hypothetical energy system development, based on current trends and to six scenarios from the Global Energy Assessment that, in addition to meeting the Sustainable Energy for All objectives, stabilize climate change to less than 2°C. The forthcoming Global Energy Assessment is the largest cross-disciplinary study on energy systems and their futures. Its analytics help us quantify the impacts of the Sustainable Energy for All objectives, their multiple benefits and also their contribution toward climate change mitigation.8

Figure 2 – Final energy demand and GHG Emissions in the Global Energy Assessment scenarios (blue lines) and compared to a business as usual case (red line)
Figure 3 – Temperature profiles for the Sustainable Energy for All scenario as well as a baseline case and one of the Global Energy Assessment scenarios.

In the baseline, energy increases by about 50 per cent and GHG emissions by about 60 per cent. This is because the baseline is fossil intensive – basically not fundamentally different from the IEA’s World Energy Outlook reference case through 2030. In the Sustainable Energy for All scenario, final energy use increases by about 10 per cent between 2010 and 2030 while for the six Global Energy Assessment scenarios final energy demand increases by less than 2 per cent over that period.9 At the same time, emissions stay constant in the Sustainable Energy for All scenario while in the Global Energy Assessment scenarios they decrease between 16-35 per cent. The change in the Sustainable Energy for All scenario compared to the baseline shows energy-related emissions down about 30 per cent (Figure 3).

The decrease in GHG emissions reductions from the Sustainable Energy for All objectives significantly contributes to a temperature-stabilization profile with likely climate stabilization at 2.0°C.

Figure 4 highlights one of the Global Energy Assessment scenarios that meet the Sustainable Energy for All objectives. The light gray area in the main graph illustrates the central role of efficiency in both reducing demand and enabling renewable energy. This illustrates how ‘negawatts’ – or avoided energy demand – are a critical lever in achieving the Sustainable Energy for All objectives. Doubling the share of renewable energy is possible with commercially-available technologies but only if current energy efficiency improvement rates are dramatically increased. Figure 4 also shows the two historical transformations that the world has experienced. First, the industrial revolution when horse-power was replaced by machines, and second, the age of diversification when energy technologies multiplied as a result of increasing energy demand from the introduction of the light bulb, internal combustion engine, aircraft and most recently, the Internet.

Figure 4 – One of the Global Energy Assessment scenarios that meets the Sustainable Energy for All objectives shown with the historical context.

Achieving the Sustainable Energy for All objectives would bring social, health, environmental, economic and security benefits. Ensuring universal energy access would foster development for the world’s poorest and drastically reduce negative health impacts associated with traditional forms of energy in developing countries. The three objectives are also consistent with avoiding climate change and would reduce local air pollution. Finally, the dramatic changes to the clean energy sector that the Sustainable Energy for All objectives imply have the potential to support the global economy by providing growth and job opportunities in rapidly growing industries.

An important year

The UN General Assembly named (Resolution 67/151) 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All– thus placing energy at the heart of the multi-lateral process for the first time. It represents, inter alia, a significant opportunity to share models that work, are scalable and can help fill gaps in existing funding or capacity. It is also a chance to ensure that the political momentum currently focused on this area is maintained. We must do considerably more than scratch the surface for an issue that deeply impacts all of our lives. This means firm commitments from many different stakeholders, well-planned country actions, a dedicated set of funding and financial tools, and ways to track progress. To begin, go to, and join us!


1 Director General, United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO)

2 Deputy Director, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and Professor, Vienna University of Technology

3 Special Advisor to the Director General, UNIDO, and Guest Research Scholar, IIASA

4 Research Assistant, IIASA.

5 Global Energy Assessment – Toward a Sustainable Future, 2012, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Laxenburg, Austria & Cambridge UP, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA. ISBN: 9781107005198.

6 MakingIt Magazine, Q1, 2012.

7 Of course, this would vary according to assumptions about per capita consumption levels.

8 These scenarios focus on analysing energy system transformations, and thus, other drivers of change such as population and Gross Domestic Product (GDP) do not vary across the six scenarios. Population increases by 20 per cent to 2030 (by about 1.3 billion) and GDP by 80 per cent.

9 This is much more “humble” compared to the roughly 50 per cent reduction one would have by simplistically applying the objectives to the current system (all else being equal).

Share this page