Commentary: Energy is at the heart of the sustainable development agenda to 2030



19 March 2018

On the basis of current progress, more than 670 million people are still projected to be without electricity access in 2030 (Photograph: Shutterstock)

Three years ago, all countries of the world adopted 17 ambitious policy goals to end poverty, protect the planet, promote gender equality, or ensure prosperity, as part of the United Nations Sustainable Development Agenda, and vowed to achieve specific targets by 2030.

Energy is at the heart of many of these Sustainable Development Goals – from expanding access to electricity, to improving clean cooking fuels, from reducing wasteful energy subsidies to curbing deadly air pollution that each year prematurely kills millions around the world. One of these goals – commonly known as SDG 7 – aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by the end of the next decade.

All these topics are fundamental to the work of the International Energy Agency. As the world’s leading energy authority, the IEA has unmatched analytical capabilities based on its unique data collection, technological network, research, and policy recommendations, which we put in the service of understanding the energy system. As I have often said – in the world of energy, data always wins.

The adoption of energy specific sustainable development goals was a milestone in moving the world towards a more sustainable and equitable system. The IEA continues to support this critical goal with unbiased data and projections. This has long been a personal and professional priority for me. Fifteen years ago, we recognized this basic fact when we first compiled data for electricity access and mapped out a scenario for delivering universal electricity access by 2030 in the World Energy Outlook, the IEA’s benchmark publication.

As a result, the IEA has been tracking country-by-country progress on energy access (SDG 7.1) on an annual basis since 2002. As the world's most authoritative source of energy statistics, the IEA is also the lead custodian agency for reporting progress towards substantially increasing the share of renewables in the global energy mix (SDG 7.2) and doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency (SDG 7.3).

The United Nations will have the first in-depth review of SDG 7 goals at the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development organized in New York, in July this year. This will be a good time to assess where we stand with our global energy goals, where existing national policies are taking us, and how to steer the global energy system towards a more sustainable path. To assist this critical process, the IEA has decided to create a new online resource to centralize all of our data and scenario projections in support of the 2030 Agenda.

Explore the IEA's new Sustainable Development Goals online resource

It is clear that the energy sector must be at the heart of efforts to lead the world on a more sustainable pathway. But our data and analysis show that the current and planned policies fall well short of achieving our critical energy-related sustainable development objectives.

There has been tremendous progress in delivering universal electricity access (SDG 7.1.1) in Asia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa, with the number of people without access declining to 1.1 billion in 2016, from 1.7 billion in 2000. But on the basis of current progress, more than 670 million people are still projected to be without electricity access in 2030. Much work remains to be done in this field.

The picture is even dimmer when it comes to access to clean and modern cooking facilities (SDG 7.1.2). About 2.8 billion people rely on polluting biomass, coal and kerosene to cook their daily meals, a number which has not changed since 2000. Without greater ambition, 2.3 billion will still remain without clean cooking access in 2030, with grave health, environmental and social consequences.

The share of modern renewables in global final energy consumption (SDG 7.2) has been growing steadily in the past decades, reaching nearly 10% in 2015. However, to achieve a truly sustainable energy system, this share needs to more than double to 21% by 2030. But while wind and solar deployment has accelerated, thanks to falling costs and policy support in many parts of the world, this goal is still out of reach under current policies.

Finally, 2015 was an impressive year for energy efficiency (SDG 7.3), with global energy intensity falling by 2.8%, the fastest annual improvement since 1990. However, the average improvement between 2000 and 2015 of 2.2% still falls short of the 2.6% target needed to achieve the SDG target, and the 3.4% annual improvement needed to meet more ambitious long-term climate objectives.

Tracking progress towards these goals is only one aspect of our sustainable development work. Through our new Sustainable Development Scenario, introduced in 2017, we also seek to map an integrated path for achieving critical global goals in the next three decades: delivering universal energy access by 2030, an early peak in carbon emissions (SDG 13), and reducing deadly air pollution (SDG 3). One of the main finding of this new scenario is that these three goals are not incompatible. Indeed, our analysis shows they can successfully be met together.

But there is an urgent need for action on all fronts, especially on renewables and energy efficiency, which are key for delivering on all three goals – energy access, climate mitigation and lower air pollution. The IEA is committed to keep leading this agenda, and stepping up efforts to support the clean energy transition. We will do so with our unparalleled data, unbiased analysis, and our determined policy support to help move the world towards delivering the 2030 Agenda.