Clean, Sustainable Energy: Combining Policy, Profit and Public Good

Christiana Figueres

Delivering clean energy for everyone, in Latin America as everywhere else, is a key part of the response to climate change and a central pillar for building a sustainable century.

By some estimates the world is spending half a trillion dollars per year on all forms of clean energy, including renewables and energy efficiency. Yet this needs to double, and then double again in short order, to turn around the continued rise in greenhouse gas emissions and keep on the safer side of climate change. It sounds like a lot but it is not.

Consider this: companies in the past few years have been issuing over three trillion dollars in corporate bonds alone. So getting this job done now is not the magic trick or uphill struggle it was twenty years ago when the UN Convention on Climate Change came into force.

We have the money. We have the technology. We have two decades worth of institution building and international cooperation under the UN climate negotiations. And we have a growing turnaround in the comparative costs of renewable and fossil fuel energy. Solar panels, for example, cost less than a fifth of what they did only five years ago. This is stunning – a real revolution.

But what is urgently required to speed up that revolution is an acceleration and scaling up that combines and coordinates government policy, commercial incentives and a focus on the public good at all levels of effort and across all interest groups – political, business, cities, regions and civil society.

What must happen next year in Paris UNFCCC is that governments pull this effort together at the international level with a new universal, and above all, meaningful, climate agreement.

What must also happen next year in Paris [at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference] is that governments pull this effort together at the international level with a new universal, and above all, meaningful, climate agreement. This agreement must set a firm path towards a carbon neutral world by the second half of the century, and catalyze action across all facets of society to not only dramatically reduce emissions, but also to build resilient economies.

The latest science from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, hosted by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Programme, underlines the indisputable reality that a major transformation is now required in the way we advance and deploy technology and position and manage our institutions towards this goal.

Success will mean improved national security, less pressure on government budgets, increased profits with far lower levels of pollution, more employment in clean tech industries for citizens, improvements in public health, and better management of water and other resources essential for a sustainable future.

We can make a high level check on progress in three measurable ways: government climate legislation, regional and urban action, and business and investor activity. How advanced are they and how coordinated are they in particular in Latin America?

In terms of legislation, Mexico’s 2012 landmark climate law setting targets on emissions and renewable energy output has been reflected in an increased pace of action elsewhere in the region. The most recent 2014 report from GLOBE, the global legislator forum, shows that 500 climate laws have now been passed in 66 countries including in a majority of Latin American nations and all the biggest Latin American economies. In 2013, Bolivia, El Salvador, Ecuador and Costa Rica, for example, made significant progress in climate legislation.

In respect to sub-national action, a survey by ICLEI – the global cities network—shows that almost hundred percent of Latin American cities are aware of the need for planning strategies to adapt to climate change: this is almost twice the level of awareness of U.S cities. Latin American cities see disease, infrastructure destruction, job and housing losses, and decay of natural systems as direct threats to their future from climate change. However, they also report that getting resources, trained staff and scientific data, and connecting to the international community for support, are all major challenges.

Investment in renewables in Latin America is continuing apace. The recently published Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment based on data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance showed that there was a global aggregate dip in investments worldwide linked in part to the fall in the costs of renewable energies. However, with the exception of Brazil, Latin America actually performed better with investment rising across most of the region.

The climate is making us an offer we simply cannot refuse: to use the challenge of addressing climate change to transform energy systems in order to power-up a low carbon century.

Nevertheless the picture is complex and not clear cut. While overall investment was healthy, domestic corporate action remains at a low level. Taking the Sao Paulo BOVESPA index as an indicator, local equity raised for renewables remained at a low 200 million (compared to 15 times that in New York).

So this region’s trend is a good reflection of the main challenge: are policy, profit incentives, and public good being coordinated effectively enough? To some extent, yes, but there is a real opportunity to push the envelope further and faster in Latin America and beyond.

Last year saw a 54 percent recovery in clean energy share prices as the cost-benefit equation continued to improve for renewables and over-capacity fell. But how many opportunities are still being missed because good policy is not connecting clearly enough with good business and neither are understood clearly enough at the nexus of the citizen and the consumer?

Connecting these dots into an achievable clean energy picture nationally, across Latin America, and via a new international agreement globally has to be the prime objective of every country.

The climate is making us an offer we simply cannot refuse: to use the challenge of addressing climate change to transform energy systems in order to power-up a low carbon century. Let’s take this opportunity and in doing so also take some big strides towards a world that meets the legitimate needs and aspirations of seven billion people.

Christiana Figueres is the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

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