SEforALL Forum marks key shift on sustainable energy’s role in delivering SDGs

By Rachel Kyte, CEO and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All

Lisbon, Portugal - Reflecting on our 4th  Sustainable Energy for All Forum, I am delighted we were able to host over 900 people in Lisbon, with a true mix of government, private sector, civil society and many forms of finance from over 100 countries - all actively engaged and providing their experience of on-the-ground action towards Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7). 

This year’s Forum marked a shift in the discussion; the sustainable energy systems of the future are no longer just about electrons, but about energy as a set of services that deliver prosperity, reliable health care, education and business opportunities. We understand now that the energy systems of the future are so fundamentally different from the energy systems of the past that they require a reimagining of the institutions, business models, financing and partnerships necessary to deliver SDG7 on the timeline laid out.

The Forum provided the launch pad for the latest report benchmarking progress on SDG7, the Tracking SDG7: Energy Progress Report. It is striking that on every indicator we are not yet on track to achieve the 2030 goals. On most we are moving in a positive direction, but nowhere near fast enough. On access to clean cooking globally we are standing still, despite some countries forging ahead. The absolute number of people without clean cooking access has barely moved in over a decade.

More alarming is that the report also noted the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa without clean cooking access has grown by 275 million in some half-dozen years – to 860 million in 2016, up from 585 million in 2010.

At the Forum, we began addressing some of the barriers to clean cooking access. We were able to bring together the leaders from associations representing different fuel sources to form a basis for ongoing collaboration. The aim of this, informally titled the “Lisbon Group”, is to help those countries where there is a political commitment to close the clean cooking gap by focusing on building markets for clean fuels. 

The thermal economy was also a focus of the Forum. Too often ignored, we heard loud and clear that cooling is no longer seen as a comfort issue per se. Access to efficient, clean cooling (HFCs-free) can directly determine people's life chances, health outcomes, and productivity as well as company business models. It’s not an issue of air conditioning for the middle class; it’s an emerging issue of survivability on a warming planet that is not adequately addressed and has implications for climate, energy and development.

Finance was the one universally highlighted the missing link. Finance seems to be falling behind the leading edge of the energy transition. We will need to consider how to change the traditional ways of thinking about infrastructure finance and look to unlock approaches that create markets rather than projects. Incumbents both in the power sector and the finance sector are struggling to adapt to the new realities but it is clear from those at the Forum that there is cause for optimism.

Beginning with an inspiring video message from UN Secretary-General António Guterres, the United Nations system was well represented at the Forum. Of note was the drive, led by the World Health Organization, on health and energy and the mobilization around electricity and clean fuels access for refugees and displaced persons, in support of faster action by UNHCR.

Throughout the Forum, we were able to showcase a growing cohort of ministers, CEOs and other leaders making strides with innovative and successful approaches that we can learn from and replicate in other countries and markets to achieve scale.

We heard many stories of inspiration in the partner working sessions which allowed us to delve deeper into many high priority areas. I was also delighted to hear how the marketplace provided such a powerful opportunity for our partners to meet with old friends but more importantly meet with people that they would never normally meet. This has inspired new collaborations and new ventures that in time will deliver real benefits for people around the world. 

The theme of this year’s Forum was “Leaving No One behind”. We are committed to ensuring that the insights provided at the Forum will help guide the energy transition so that no one is left behind. The sustainable energy movement has come a long way and is maturing. As the Tracking SDG7 report showed, we are not on track.  Yet there are many, many reasons to be hopeful and many passionate business and political leaders and communities seeing results.

The diverse leadership, new approaches, new partnerships and new finance evident in Lisbon will be projected into the UN High-Level Political Forum reviewing SDG7, among other global goals, in July. It will also provide meaningful input to the discussions on how to support member states to implement their NDCs and raise ambition in the Paris Agreement process for climate action, including the unique opportunity of the UN Secretary-General’s head of state Climate Summit in September 2019 where he will ask for renewed commitments to lead. I took three key messages away from Lisbon: 

  • The fundamental shift in the way we can provide energy services (renewables, integrated, electric mobility, new business models, new financial products) is well underway and institutions, financial markets and development finance are behind where they need to be to drive this at speed and scale. 
  • If we focus on those traditionally unserved with energy and design services for them we will catch those in between, today underserved and without reliable, affordable and clean energy. Focusing on the last mile first is good for everyone, whether it be for electricity services, clean fuels for cooking or solutions for cold chains and cooling.
  • While international meetings of energy dignitaries, traditional energy companies and their financiers are not diverse, there is real diversity in the movement providing solutions to communities in the developed and developing worlds and we need to embrace that and build on it to be successful in achieving the global goals. 

The movement you could see and feel in Lisbon is something that couldn’t have come together without the generous support of our Forum sponsors and the support and engagement of our many partners over the years. This support ensures SEforALL continues to underpin that movement. From global convening, analysis of the data and evidence, to filling the gaps and supporting governments, we are responding to the demand for an engine room to build speed and scale.

Thank you to all – sponsors, speakers, delegates and partners – who made the event a success and helped to progress the movement in such a dynamic direction.