Solar powering sustainable development in Asia and the Pacific

The way energy is produced, distributed and used causes environmental damage – most visibly air pollution - that in turn harms people’s health. It is also one of the major drivers of climate change. Recognising this, countries are urgently looking to shift to more sustainable energy, but the transition has so far been slow. Put simply, our future depends on our ability to decarbonize our economies by the end of the century. This was recognised by the Paris climate agreement in 2015 and is central to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG 7) sets countries the twin challenge of meeting new benchmarks in renewable energy and energy efficiency, while ensuring universal access to modern energy.

In Asia and the Pacific, progress towards SDG 7 needs to be accelerated. While 99 percent of the population is expected to have access to electricity by 2030, access to clean cooking fuels will reach only 70 percent of our region’s population, leaving far too many people exposed to the deadly impacts of indoor air pollution. Energy intensity – a measure of our economies’ energy efficiency – is set to decrease but will fall short of 2030 Agenda targets if no further action is taken. At the same time, the share of renewable energy in total energy consumption is only expected to reach 14 percent, well under the 22 percent share required.
Solar energy has a major part to play in closing these gaps. It is an opportunity we must seize for low carbon development, energy security and poverty alleviation. Because solar power can bring clean, emissions-free and evenly distributed energy. This is particularly relevant to Asia and the Pacific, where developing countries have abundant solar energy resources. Solar energy technology increasingly offers a cost-effective alternative to extending networks to outlying and often challenging geographical locations. A potential which has been captured by the Indian leadership’s ambition for “one world, one sun, one grid”.

Governments, the private sector and investors are now thinking over the horizon, planning for a more sustainable and low carbon future. The cost of renewable technologies, very much including solar power has dropped rapidly, bringing these solutions within reach. India now has the newest and cheapest solar technology of anywhere in the world. Mini-grids or standalone solar home systems can be deployed quickly and help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Due in part to unsustainable subsidies and in part to inertia, coal fired electricity is set to continue to grow in the short to medium term, but wind and solar must play a much more substantial role sooner rather than later for us to have a chance of meeting the SDGs or achieving the aspirations of the Paris Agreement.

India is supporting this solar revolution. By founding and hosting the International Solar Alliance, it has moved decisively to increasing access to solar finance, lowering the cost of technology and building the solar skills needed among engineers, planners and administrators. But it has also set an unparalleled deployment target for solar power generation. The National Solar Mission aims to reach 100 GW of solar power generation by 2022 and has spurred intense activity in solar development across India which has captured the imagination of the region.

At the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, the development arm of the United Nations in the region, we are clear solar energy can boost renewables’ share in our power mix, increase energy efficiency and bring electricity to remote parts of the region. Our research is focused on overcoming the challenges of achieving these three elements of SDG7. Upon request, we support countries maximize the potential to adopt sustainable energy through technical support and capacity building, including through the development of energy transition roadmaps. Work is also underway to develop a develop a regional masterplan on sustainable energy connectivity, vital to make the most of solar power by supporting the growth of cross border power systems.

A core purpose of sustainable development is to ensure we leave future generations a world which affords them the same opportunities we have enjoyed. This is within our grasp if we work across borders to promote solar energy throughout Asia and the Pacific. India has a major role to play. Its experience gives us a historical opportunity to shape best practices in solar energy for our region and reduce carbon emissions. This is experience we cannot afford to waste.

The author is United Nations Under-Secretary General and Executive Secretary of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific.