Why taking a systems perspective could be the key to success: findings from a meta study.
The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly having a serious impact on the work of sustainable energy projects around the globe. Due to lockdowns and stay-at-home-rules in many countries, several of our projects have been, and continue to be, constrained. The WISIONS team poses the following question: what might the general impact of COVID-19 be on sustainable energy development and achieving SDG 7 in the Global South?
For more than three months, the pandemic has impacted on our societies, economies and politics. Although restrictions are being gradually lifted, the impact of the pandemic in the Global South in terms of poverty, hunger, economic shock and unemployment is severe. With few domestic resources to counter the crisis, the one-size-fits-all strategy of social distancing and stay at home does not necessarily meet the needs of citizens in developing countries. The IMF estimates that an additional 50 million people will fall below the poverty line in the short term, with other studies expecting the figure to be up to ten times higher. If these appalling predictions are correct, the international community must become more active than ever on this issue.
Key measures are already being taken to support the Global South to absorb the shock, such as the emergency plans announced and introduced by the World Bank, as well as the EU and German Federal Ministry for Cooperation (BMZ). However, many claim this will not be enough and propose a “Marshall Plan” for development and debt cancellation. But what can we expect in the fields of energy access and sustainable energy? How will the progress made to date on SDG 7 be maintained and how can we ensure that we do not lose ground?
As the latest SDG 7 Tracking Report shows, key progress has been made. However, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.8 billion people were still without access to clean cooking fuels and 789 million people had no access to electricity (SDG 7 Tracking Report 2020). Only 28% of African health facilities have constant reliable access to energy. The danger of these numbers worsening is imminent, as the economic shock could delay investment in sustainable energy and the lack of financial resources could put additional pressure on the emerging off-grid sector. This could be a major setback for the entire DRE sector but, in particular, locally-based energy practitioners will struggle as they generally have no access to short-term public financial aid or loans to bridge the gap. These energy practitioners, ranging from small initiatives and NGOs to successful medium-sized companies, are WISIONS’ core partners.
Addressing that threat, the Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE) – of which we are a member – sets out in an open letter why it is crucial to “save a decade of energy access progress” and, together with others, called for action to create a roadmap for the DRE sector to survive and flourish in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
The picture is not wholly negative. There are reasons to believe that the crisis could give sustainable energy the boost it needs. In fact, off-grid energy solutions could make the Global South more resilient against this and future crises, with off-grid electrification paying an important role. There is already evidence in this crisis of communities and public services with independent renewable energy systems having an advantage over communities without such systems: “the more remote with DRE, the better prepared”. Our partners in Colombia are an example of this.
Another positive aspect that we have observed is increased online interest and a push for active online exchange within the practitioner networks that are supported by WISIONS. This points to the possibility that this lockdown may lead to a reflection on findings and the development of joint innovative solutions.
Examples underlining the positive aspects include the announcement by Nigeria of a financial fund for the off-grid electrification of national health centres and the introduction of several energy access relief funds for Sub-Saharan Africa (a list can be found on the Energypedia webpage). This kind of support is badly needed, as demonstrated by a survey conducted among East African solar SMEs, which found they are in urgent need of financial support to sustain them over the crisis. In view of the magnitude of the crisis, we think the current measures might not be sufficient. The need to increase the funds available was stressed by ARE in their recent call for action and open letter for crowding in financial resources for the Energy Access Relief Fund.
The COVID-19 pandemic is undoubtedly adding to the challenges we face in achieving SDG 7 – but a crisis is also an opportunity for learning how to respond better in the future to other crises. One key path to supporting communities in the Global South to become more resilient is the deployment of decentralised renewable energy systems – ideally constructed and run by local energy practitioners to ensure long-term sustainability. These could lead to improved delivery of health services, food security and other basic needs, both in the short and long term (read this discussion paper by our colleagues at the Wuppertal Institute, which stresses the need to keep the long-term goals in mind).
To conclude, the sustainable energy movement is facing a number of additional challenges due to COVID-19 and it is encouraging to see that some measures are being taken to tackle these challenges. Indeed, this could be the momentum necessary for forging ahead with sustainable and renewable energy solutions, if the impetus can be matched by the high levels of funding required. The WISIONS initiative has been in existence for 16 years and, in that time, our experiences in the field have identified that the empowerment of local energy practitioners and communities in the Global South to develop locally-tailored strategies is a key factor in driving progress. This know-how could help fight the crisis and get meeting SDG 7 back on track, ensuring that no-one is left behind.