Five takeaways from Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report 2021
759 million people lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion people are unable to cook cleanly – numbers that are expected to get worse because of COVID-19
Every year, the release of Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report is anticipated by Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) and those pushing for a clean, equitable energy transition.
The annual report tracks global, regional and country progress on the Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) targets of access to electricity and clean cooking, renewable energy and energy efficiency. By doing so, Tracking SDG7 offers a clear picture of how far we still need to go to ensure clean, affordable energy for all by 2030.
Knowing where the world stands on SDG7 is especially important this year in the context of COVID-19 and the role energy access plays in fighting the pandemic. Health centres need reliable electricity to treat patients. Powered cold chains are needed to keep vaccines at the required temperatures as they are distributed to communities, both urban and rural. And access to clean cooking solutions reduces exposure to indoor air pollution that increases vulnerability to COVID-19 and other illnesses.
Energy is essential for powering economic activities and providing a just, healthier and more prosperous future for all. COVID-19 has stalled progress being made by developing countries, and a lack of energy access will compromise their ability to recover.
With this in mind, the latest findings of Tracking SDG7, which uses data from 2019 and earlier, are worrying. According to the report, 759 million people globally still lack access to electricity and 2.6 billion people are unable to cook cleanly and safely.
Speaking on the release of the report, Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL), and Co-Chair of UN-Energy, said:
“The latest Tracking SDG7 findings should serve as a wake-up call to the global community. So many development goals hinge on access to clean, affordable energy – from creating new economic opportunities to securing gender equality to addressing climate change. Countries without energy access will fall further behind because of the pandemic, which is why we need 2021 to be a year of ambitious action on energy access and transition.
The UN’s High-level Dialogue on Energy this September is an opportunity for countries, companies and other stakeholders to demonstrate their commitment to this global goal with Energy Compacts that capture concrete and ambitious actions towards achieving SDG7.”
Here are our five takeaways and supporting data from this year’s Tracking SDG7 report:
1. Incremental progress on electricity access will be undone by COVID-19 unless we act fast
According to Tracking SDG7, the global electricity access gap narrowed only slightly with uneven progress across regions. In 2018, there were 789 million people worldwide without electricity access, whereas in 2019 there were 759 million.
We were already seeing slow progress on electricity access before COVID-19, and the pandemic will set us back further. For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has estimated that by the end of 2020, 25 million people in developing Asia and Africa may have lost the ability to afford an essential bundle of electricity services.
Accounting for current and planned policies and the COVID-19 crisis, 660 million people will still be unelectrified in 2030, according to the IEA’s Stated Policies Scenario.
2. Minimal annual gains in clean cooking access make universal access by 2030 improbable
The report finds very little movement on access to clean cooking with 2.6 billion people without clean cooking access in 2019, compared to 2.8 billion in 2018.
In the last decade, the percentage of the global population with access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking has risen by only 9 percentage points, from 57 percent in 2010 to 66 percent in 2019.
A threefold increase will be required between now and 2030 to achieve the goal of universal access – from the 1.0 percentage point average annual increase in the last decade.
Based on current trends without policy changes, 2.4 billion people will still be left without access to clean cooking by 2030, about half of those remaining without access residing in Sub-Saharan Africa  and a quarter in Eastern Asia and South Eastern Asia .
Latest data on primary indicators of global progress toward SDG7 targets. Source: IEA, IRENA, UNSD, World Bank, WHO
3. Asia has made progress across all SDG7 targets, thanks to greater investment in energy
There are plenty of positive signs coming out of Asia based on the latest Tracking SDG7 data. From 2010-2109, the biggest drop in the electricity access deficit was in Central and Southern Asia , going from 440 million in 2010 to 103 million in 2019.
The two regions of Central and Southern Asia and Eastern and South Eastern Asia also accounted for the majority of access gains in clean cooking for the same period.
Asia also stands out for its improvements in energy intensity (i.e. energy efficiency), with Eastern and South Eastern Asia seeing an annual average rate of improvement of 3.1 percent. This contrasts with overall global progress on energy intensity, which is seeing a continuing slowdown of improvement.
Asia’s progress has been underpinned by finance, with Central and Southern Asia seeing the largest growth in annual average public financial flows, with a close to sixfold increase in the last decade. Tracking recent progress, Eastern and South Eastern Asia was the only region to have an increase in public financial flows for energy from 2017 to 2018.
4. Sub-Saharan Africa is falling further behind on energy access and efficiency
In Sub-Saharan Africa, the 2019 electricity access rate was just 46 percent: with an increase from 548 million people in 2018 to 570 million people who still lacked access to electricity. The world’s 20 least-electrified countries in terms of percentage of population with electricity are all in Sub-Saharan Africa.
And for the first time, more people without access to clean cooking solutions are in Sub-Saharan Africa than anywhere else. In the last decade, population growth has outpaced new clean cooking access, resulting in 50 percent more people without access to clean cooking solutions in the region.
Sub-Saharan Africa also has one of the lowest average annual improvement rates in energy intensity at just 1.4 percent, well below the global average of 2.0 percent in 2019 and the 3.0 percent needed to achieve the SDG7 target.
5. Modern renewables and energy efficiency are pillars of a clean energy transition that supports development – they need to be scaled up
Measuring progress on SDG7 should include looking beyond minimal energy access for basic household services to sufficient levels for job creation and income generation. Developing countries need sufficient electricity to power businesses and grow their economies, but this electricity needs to come from low-carbon sources to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 and to deliver on development priorities.
On a positive note, in 2018 a majority of new renewable electricity capacity was installed in developing countries, particularly new solar and wind capacity.
The share of renewables in total final energy consumption (TFEC) has remained steady over the last decade. In 2018, the share of renewable energy sources (including traditional uses of biomass) in TFEC was 17.1 percent.
However, the share of modern renewable sources in TFEC (renewables excluding traditional uses of biomass) increased by a mere 2.5 percent over the past decade to reach 10.7 percent in 2018.
The distinction of modern renewables is important because burning of biomass for heat and cooking is considered a renewable energy source, yet this source can be harmful to people and the environment.
For example, although Sub-Saharan Africa has the largest share of renewable sources in its energy supply, traditional uses of biomass represent more than 85 percent of this, which contributes to deforestation and negative health impacts.
For meaningful progress to be made towards decarbonization, uptake of modern renewables needs to be scaled up while containing energy consumption through energy efficiency.
The way forward
With 2021 being a pivotal year for SDG7 and the energy transition, we need urgent action to address a lack of political and financial commitment to securing clean, affordable energy for all. The UN High-level Dialogue on Energy in September will look to secure Energy Compacts from governments, companies, development organizations and other stakeholders as voluntary commitments to action across the various areas of SDG7.
Learn more about how you can commit to an Energy Compact here.
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