UN’s call for clean energy is key to unlocking a sustainable future

Energy poverty is a global crisis that undermines economic development, stunts job creation and limits access to education and healthcare. Yet the energy industry is also one of the primary drivers of climate change. Thus, the United Nation’s global call for clean and affordable is one of the world’s keystone challenges critical to unlocking a better and more sustainable future for everyone.


By Roman Elsener

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There is a soccer ball sitting on a shelf in Minoru Takada’s office. Instead of the black panels of a regular size 5 soccer ball, it features icons for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals imprinted on the leather.


These Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were set by world leaders at the United Nations in 2015 and constitute a plan to make this planet habitable for many generations to come: the eradication of poverty and hunger, healthcare and education for all, gender equality, access to water and to electricity, to name a few.

Clean energy at the heart of Sustainable Development Goals

You can compare the 17 goals to a sports team – they depend on each other and will only win if everybody works together. The stakes are high – this team will not have to win a World Cup, but effectively save the planet: Water is getting wasted, all sorts of dirty fuels burn ineffectively, electricity consumption is constantly rising, so are global temperatures and the number of floods, storms and other natural and man-made disasters.


While the team needs to be strong together, sometimes one individual has to take the lead. Like in soccer, it is often the forward with Number 7 that needs to score. Just like things look up for Portugal, when Cristiano Ronaldo – or CR7 as he’s called because of the number on the back of his jersey – hits the back of the net, the SDGs are in closer reach, when the 7th UN directive is on track, the goal to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”


Minoru Takada, is the head coach, if you will, for team SDG7. Electricity, he explains, is central to creating a sustainable world, because it is an enabler for all sorts of activities in our society. Not only economic activities require modern energy services, but also social agendas – empowering youth or creating employment opportunities for women – depend largely on the availability of energy.

Energy access is essential for fighting the pandemic

Since the Covid-19 pandemic swept across the world, access to electricity has become even more important. “Energy services are absolutely essential for fighting the pandemic – from powering healthcare facilities to maintaining cold chains, from supplying clean water to enabling communication services to connect people and facilitate distance learning while social distancing,” Takada says. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around a billion people in developing countries are currently serviced by health facilities without electricity at all.  Over 200 million children are attending primary school without electricity. As the pandemic expands to developing countries, including Africa where energy access is lowest, urgent action is needed.


“Access to clean energy solutions need to be prioritized in any governments’ pandemic response and recovery plans,” suggests the UN official. “First and foremost, health care services need to be equipped with electricity to enable their work. Off-grid renewable technologies (such as solar PV) and battery storage offer important solutions in rural areas.” He points out that at the same time, many businesses, including energy service providers, require financial support during the pandemic.  

From the cookstove to economic empowerment 

Investing in renewables can present a win-win opportunity to provide essential energy services during the pandemic, while driving clean energy transitions. There is still a long way to go: For example, about three billion people are still cooking with biofuels – like wood or animal dung – and most of them are women. Using such fuels in an open fire is very harmful. According to the World Health Organization, close to four million people are dying because of illnesses related to such fumes. If we can get cleaner solutions for cooking to these people, it will immediately have a big positive impact on their health.


One could, for example, provide poor families with a photovoltaic cell that produces enough energy for cooking and other household chores – something the government of Bangladesh recently did for six million people in their country. “Many developing countries come up with innovative solutions for decentralized electrification on a small but effective scale,” Minoru Takada says.


Electricity also opens up the horizon in terms of income generating opportunities, the UN official explains. 

“ The internet can create market opportunities, but you need electricity to access the World Wide Web. Traditionally, many women are deprived of those economic opportunities because of lack of access to the market, lack of information or transportation. ”
Minoru Takada, Team Leader (Sustainable Energy), Division for Sustainable Development Goals, UN DESA

Access to electricity immediately changes this, just as it can remedy many social justice issues and inequalities. If you are rich, you’re spending just a tiny portion of your income for heat and electricity, plus you can choose if you want clean energy. People who live in poverty spend a substantial percentage of their income on their energy bill. So if you deliver energy more cheaply to poorer people, you will quickly change the social equation as well.

The imperative is there: Now it’s about creating political will

Is the political will there for such a move? Not according to Rana Adlib and her colleagues at REN21, an international policy network of people dedicated to building a sustainable energy future with renewables. “We will never meet the objectives under SDG7 if we continue down our current energy path,” REN21 states in their most recent report. “Most countries are still subsidizing the consumption of fossil fuels, and fossil fuel consumption subsidies increased 11 percent in 2017,” the authors of the study write.


Both the UN SDG7 advocate and the REN21 representatives agree that there has been much progress in the use of renewable energy and energy efficiency, and expanding energy access over the past decade. In the past year renewables provided more than 26 percent of global electricity generation and as of 2017 renewables accounted for an estimated 18.1 percent of total final energy consumption. The global population without access to electricity also decreased from around 1.2 billion people in 2010 to around 840 million in 2017. Nevertheless, the world is not on track to meet international climate goals established under the Paris Agreement, from which the current US administration recently retired.


But the USA will have to play a big role in the world when it comes to addressing the energy challenges – they are the second largest emitter of the greenhouse gas emissions right now. And there is also the history America has in leading technological innovation. “If the USA moves, it affects not only their domestic trajectory but also global energy trajectories,” Minoru Takada says.


Although the current administration is not committed to the Paris Agreement, all’s not lost, according to the SDG7 representative. At the level of US States and municipalities there’s a lot of enthusiasm. “They are taking the leadership role to set the policies toward climate related objectives, which include investment for a clean energy future,” Takada says.

Traditional utilities can help tapinvestments in the energy transition

While the world leaders hope that the United States will be able to get back to the climate objective as agreed to in the Paris Agreement, they have found new hope: “The young generation who are strongly voicing their concern about the future of the planet and putting real political pressure on, are encouraging our work every day,” Minoru Takada says.
Now, those in power have to hear the heeding voices. About two thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions are due to the energy sector. So there is a collective responsibility by the energy industry to transition to cleaner, sustainable solution.
The United Nations are encouraging everybody to align their business operations to the objective of putting clean energy systems in place, so that by around 2050 we achieve carbon neutrality - that’s zero net emissions of CO2.


Minoru Takada sees a massive transformation of the energy sector. “The traditional energy companies have a very important role to play, in that they have the technical expertise and the technologies to make this transition. But they have to invest more in sustainable energy solutions.” Takada adds: “What needs to be done is to give clear policy directions, at the highest political level, to set the course for long-term commitments. Then business will follow with investment. Business leaders really want to have stability and work in the frame of long-term commitments.”


About 50 percent of the investments in the power sector are in renewable energies, and the percentage is growing rapidly. But according to the UN expert, the oil and gas industry is going to be a very important player for a long time to come in order to be able to meet the entire global energy demand.


“These players should diversify,” he recommends. “They can increase the efficiency of their products and prepare for the massive changes to come by investing in clean energy options." According to Takada, as well as REN 21, there is not one technological option being superior to others – but all of them will have to work as one for the team to win.

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June 27, 2020

Roman Elsener is a news, business and technology journalist in New York City.


Combined picture credits: Johannes Kroemer

Sustainable Development Goals


The United Nations has defined 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a blueprint for peace and prosperity around the world. Each goal is an urgent call for action and global partnerships to eradicate deprivations such as poverty and inequality or tackle issues like pollution and climate change. 

SDG7: Affordable and clean energy for all


Universal access to energy, increased energy efficiency and more renewables are central to improving economic development and creating more inclusive communities while tackling climate change head on.