Shaping the Future of Sustainable Energy in Asia and the Pacific

Korea-Hydro windmill complex on the sea. 

UN Photo/Kibae Park

By Noeleen Heyzer

The world is at a critical juncture, with energy consumption rising dramatically. Even allowing for the positive impacts of the policy commitments and plans announced by countries to address global climate change, total primary energy demand in Asia and the Pacific alone is expected to nearly double between 2010 and 2030.

How will the Asia-Pacific region meet this demand? How will we grow in a sustainable way that is both equitable and efficient? How can universal energy access be achieved?

These are some of the key questions being addressed at the 22nd World Energy Congress in Daegu, Republic of Korea this month.

The world today faces two main energy challenges: providing enough light, warmth, and power for every household – and at the same time shifting to cleaner energy sources to protect our increasingly fragile natural environment.

Just over a year ago, at the United Nations Rio+20 Conference, 191 Member States and observers recognized the critical role that energy plays in development. This is why the UN General Assembly declared the period 2014-2024 as the United Nations Decade of Sustainable Energy for All – and why the UN Secretary-General, Mr. Ban Ki-Moon launched his “Sustainable Energy for All” initiative in 2011, focusing on three major goals: improving energy access, energy efficiency, and the share of renewable sources in our energy mix.

Ensuring sustainable energy for all is additionally challenging in Asia and the Pacific.

Despite great progress in improving peoples’ lives, the Asia-Pacific region still has 628 million people without access to electricity, and 1.8 billion people who still use traditional fuels such as wood, charcoal, agricultural residues and animal waste.

Widespread energy poverty condemns billions to darkness, to ill-health and to missed opportunities: children cannot study at night, clinics and hospitals cannot offer quality healthcare, and large numbers of people are unable to make use of the opportunities and information accessible through modern technology.

We must end this inequality, but we need to do so in a way that is smart and sustainable, utilizing natural resources, while preserving the integrity of the ecosystems on which we depend.

In addition to the hundreds of millions without access to modern energy services, the Asia-Pacific region also has some of the highest levels of carbon intensity. Our primary energy intensity is among the highest in the world, despite rapid and significant reductions in recent decades. This limits long-term national and regional competitiveness - jeopardizing employment opportunities and income levels.

The Asia-Pacific region has some of the largest exporters and importers of fossil fuels, as well as the highest rates of fossil fuel subsidies. Worldwide, these subsidies were six times greater than the financial support for renewable energy. The increasing dependency on fossil fuel imports in both the largest economies and the most vulnerable small island states exposes our region to the risks of oil price volatility, and the impacts of climate change, such as extreme weather events.

Rebalancing our energy mix is therefore critical. The countries of our region have one of the fastest growing rates of investment in and added capacity for renewable energy, taking advantage of our ample supplies of solar, hydro, wind, biomass, geothermal, and ocean energies. Still, the current energy mix remains mostly fossil fuel based, especially coal, with renewable resources, including hydro, accounting for only 16 per cent of total electricity production.

These additional challenges are why a comprehensive, long-term understanding of “enhanced energy security” is evolving in the Asia-Pacific region. This concept moves beyond calculations of supply and demand alone, towards a holistic consideration of multiple aspects, including access, efficiency, renewables, environment, economics, trade and investment, and last but not least, connectivity.

As early as 2008, member States of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) were developing a regional framework to address these challenges, passing a Resolution at the annual Commission session on promoting renewables for energy security and sustainable development. In a lecture last year to the Energy Market Authority in Singapore, I also proposed that the region should explore the creation of a game-changing ‘Asian Energy Highway’ - an integrated regional ‘smart grid’.

These discussions culminated in May this year, when ESCAP organized the Asian and Pacific Energy Forum (APEF), the first intergovernmental conference of energy ministers held under the auspices of the UN in the region. Supported by the Russian Federation, thirty-four countries met in Vladivostok and adopted a groundbreaking framework – a Ministerial Declaration and 5-year plan of action on regional cooperation for enhanced energy security and the sustainable use of energy.

One key area of action is to develop common infrastructure, and to promote energy policies which accelerate regional economic integration. Energy connectivity is not something new to the region, the ASEAN Power Grid, the emerging SAARC Market for Electricity, and the GMS Power Market, are key instances of subregional initiatives that could be linked and expanded under a common vision.

The lesson of these initiatives is that regional cooperation works best when it is based on such a common vision. As evidenced by the Asia-Pacific countries in Vladivostok, our region is committed to shaping the regional energy future we want: one of equity, efficiency and resilience, to benefit our people and our planet.