The Covid-19 pandemic, which has upended the global economy and shuttered many businesses, has slowed the progress towards universal energy access goals, according to the International Energy Agency.
Globally, 733 million people still have no access to electricity and 2.4 billion people cook using fuels harmful to their health and the environment, the Paris-based agency said in its Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress report released on Wednesday.
At the current rate of progress, 670 million people will remain without electricity in 2030 — 10 million more than projected last year, it added.
The sustainable development goal (SDG) 7 is one of the 17 goals established by the UN General Assembly in 2015. It calls for affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030.
The new report has been jointly released by SDG 7’s custodian agencies including the IEA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, the UN Statistics Division, the World Bank and the World Health Organisation.
It revealed that the impact of the pandemic — including lockdowns, supply chain disruptions and diversion of fiscal resources to keep food and fuel prices affordable — have adversely affected progress towards SDG 7.
“The shocks caused by Covid-19 reversed progress towards universal access for electricity and clean cooking, and slowed vital improvements in energy efficiency even as renewables showed encouraging resilience,” Fatih Birol, executive director of IEA, said.
The advance has been derailed in the most vulnerable countries and in those that were already struggling to secure energy access, the report said. Nearly 90 million people in Asia and Africa who had previously gained access to electricity, can no longer afford to pay for their basic energy needs, it said.
Africa remains the least electrified in the world, with 568 million people without access to electricity. Sub-Saharan Africa's share of the global population without electricity jumped to 77 per cent in 2020 from 71 per cent in 2018.
“While 70 million people globally gained access to clean cooking fuels and technologies, this progress was not enough to keep pace with population growth, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa,” the report said.
The share of the world’s population with access to electricity jumped to 91 per cent in 2020, from 83 per cent in 2010. However, the pace dropped in recent years due to the “increasing complexity of reaching more remote and poorer unserved populations and the unprecedented impact of the pandemic”.
Meeting the 2030 target requires increasing the number of new connections to 100 million a year, the IEA said.
International public financing for renewable energy needs to accelerate, especially in the poorest, most vulnerable countries, Francesco La Camera, Irena's director general, said.
“We have failed to support those most in need. With only eight years left to achieve universal access to affordable and sustainable energy, we need radical actions to accelerate the increase of international public financial flows and distribute them in a more equitable manner,” Mr La Camera said.
The affects of the pandemic on energy industry have been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. It has led to uncertainty in global oil and gas markets and sent energy prices soaring, the report said.
“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a global energy crisis, driving huge price spikes that are causing particularly severe impacts in developing economies,” Mr Birol said.
“Many of these economies were already in dire financial straits as a result of the Covid-19 crisis … overcoming these difficulties to get on track for sustainable development goals will require massive and innovative financial solutions from the international community.”
Despite continued disruptions in economic activity and supply chains, renewable energy was the only energy source to grow through the pandemic, the report said.
However, the positive global and regional trends in renewable energy have left behind countries most in need of electricity. This was intensified by a drop in international public financial flows to developing countries in support of clean energy. They decreased for the second year in a row, falling to $10.9 billion in 2019, according to IEA estimates.
“The amount was down by nearly 24 per cent from the previous year and may be worsened by the pandemic in 2020. Overall, the level of financing remains below what is needed to reach SDG 7, particularly in the most vulnerable and least developed countries,” the report said.
The renewables share needs to reach more than 30 per cent of total final energy consumption by 2030, up from 18 per cent in 2019, to be on track for reaching net-zero energy emissions by 2050, it added.
“Achieving this objective would require strengthening policy support in all sectors and implementing effective tools to further mobilise private capital, especially in least-developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing countries,” the IEA said.
“Two years of pandemic have negatively affected international investment flows to promote renewable energy in developing countries,” UNSD director Stefan Schweinfest said.
“These are the countries that most need investment to reach Goal 7, including in data collection to help monitor and evaluate sustainable energy policies and strategies.”
The report findings urged the international community and policymakers to safeguard gains made towards the SDG 7. It advised them to remain committed to continued action towards affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all, and pressed upon maintaining a strategic focus on countries needing the most support.
“We believe SDG 7 is and remains an achievable goal and we urge governments and the global community to scale up efforts to integrate universal energy access into national energy transition plans, and to focus on the most remote, vulnerable and poorest unserved populations to ensure no one is left behind,” said Riccardo Puliti, infrastructure vice president at the Washington-based World Bank.