Powerful benefits of "clean energy"

April 17, 2014 | 00:00

Powerful benefits of “clean energy”

EER’s Jozef Badida recently attended the fourth annual Euro-Mediterranean Energy Efficiency Forum in Monaco. Policy and decision makers discussed the potential of energy efficiency to support Europe’s path to sustainable economic growth. Best practices were shared and an answer was sought to the question what policies should support energy efficiency investments. Intrigued by the keynote speech of Mark Radka who heads the UN Environment Programme’s Energy Branch, Jozef interviewed Mr Radka afterwards.

Mark Radka
Mr. Radka, what is the main objective of the UN Environment Programme and specifically its Energy Branch?

UNEP is the organization within the UN system responsible for the environment. In the Energy Branch we help governments, the private sector, and civil society make the shift to an energy system that is less harmful to the environment. Given the impact of climate change, our focus is on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but we stress the multiple benefits such as reducing pollution and improving air quality.

Do you think that the Technology Mechanism, established by the Copenhagen COP 15, is robust enough to provide a real technology transfer from developed to developing countries, thus helping to achieve global goals against climate change?

By itself it won’t be enough. However, if the Technology Mechanism can help countries realize that many useful and globally proven technologies already exist, it can be a powerful motivator. Too often the barriers to technology transfer have their roots in a lack of knowledge, poor policies and weak institutions. Getting the upstream conditions right is critical, and that’s where the Technology Mechanism can help.

What is the expenses forecast? Is it realistic at all?

What UNEP and our partners are focusing on is providing high quality, focused, short term technical assistance in response to specific requests made by countries. Remember that the Climate Technology Centre and Network (CTCN), which is the operational part of the Technology Mechanism, is not supposed to provide finance for technology-based projects; that’s the job of others, including the Green Climate Fund. The CTCN business plan is built around a five year budget of $100 million, which is not a lot of money when you look at the underlying investment in technologies that’s needed, but is a good amount if it helps countries get the fundamentals right.

Where does the “hidden” energy – energy efficiency - stand in this picture? How could society benefit from energy efficiency? Is it rather an environmental (climate change) or an energy (economic sector) issue?

Improving energy efficiency is one of the most sensible things a country, city, business, or individual can do because doing so not only helps meet the climate challenge, it also saves money, reduces pollution, and improves health. Energy efficiency is not an “either or” proposition.

Although energy efficiency seems to be the most cost-efficient way to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, not everybody is embracing this notion. Is the real problem only fossil subsidies, and relatively cheap fossil energy or is the question more complex?

Fossil fuel subsidies and cheap fossil energy do not help of course, but there are many more roadblocks that hold back the potential of energy efficiency. Good opportunities are often hidden, so the people who make investment or management decisions just overlook them. And sometimes the person who has to make the investment in a more efficient product or process – a landlord, for example, who pays for insulated windows – doesn’t benefit directly. In this case it’s the renter who sees lower heating bills or has a more comfortable apartment, but unless the landlord can raise the rent there’s no incentive for him to pay for the improvement.

At the March session of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Bonn, the issue of renewable energy and energy efficiency as important parts of the global effort to raise mitigation ambitions before 2020 was debated. Do you see the UNFCCC as the right format to address the issue?

Anything that can bring a higher level of confidence to the UNFCCC process is a good thing. The technologies exist and energy management practices are well known within the energy community and save money. Getting negotiators to recognize these facts can only but help bring about faster agreement and action on the multilateral front. Efforts to accelerate action on renewable energy and energy efficiency can’t be left to the UNFCCC process alone, however. That’s why initiatives such as the Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative are critical.

The biggest problem of renewable energy and energy efficiency are the costs. How can we reduce them?

Well, they have been coming down rapidly, and will continue to do so. The cost of photovoltaic panels, for example has dropped by something like 80 percent in the last decade. In some locations renewable energy is cheaper than any alternative. Decreases in cost will continue to come across the board, ranging from advances brought about by Research and Development to improvements in manufacturing processes to experience in installation.

We are facing many local and global campaigns as well as goal-seeking plans to combat climate change. However, at the end of the day, not all of them will be materialised. What is essential to achieving success? Should it be a global, regional or local scheme?

I believe we need all of these. Global agreements can drive national efforts, and in the end the real action is often taken at a regional or local level. But successes in cities and regions – the proof that change is possible – move upward and give national governments confidence to make commitments. Transforming the global energy system – which is what we’re talking about – is going to happen because action occurs everywhere throughout society.

There are still many sceptics doubting anthropologic global warming but on the other hand they see the benefits of energy savings and the deployment of renewables, such as enhanced energy security or local employment. Do you think that this division still matters and what would be your message to them?

Even if you are a climate sceptic – and I hope the latest reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change convince you otherwise – you should be persuaded by the other benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy. What I find powerful about what some call “clean energy” is that when presented with good evidence of the multiple advantages, people who are motivated by completely different beliefs can agree on taking action. The secret is in presenting all the benefits and making a strong case that appeals to multiple audiences, and then getting them to work together.

Mark Radka manages the UN Environment Programme's Energy Branch efforts to link the global energy and environment agendas, much of which involves building partnerships between industry, governments, NGOs, and other groups. He previously worked in Washington as a consultant to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the World Bank. Mark holds a Master of Public Policy degree in Environmental Policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a M.S. degree in Environmental Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley, and a S.B. in Civil Engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


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