How I Created (Not) a UN Campaign

This article is about how I became obsessed with trying to create, or catalyze into being, an international campaign to dramatically increase renewable energy investment in the developing world — and why I now feel ready to let go of that obsession. The short version is this:  The campaign is happening, and the UN is doing it.

I have a hard time letting go of my ideas for initiatives, once they are hatched. And the UN campaign is not exactly what I imagined for the initiative we were calling “Big Push.” But it’s certainly close enough for me to say, okay, this is one project I can take off my plate. Here’s the link:

http://sustainableenergyforall.org

This campaign is about as high level as such a thing can get. The initiative comes straight from the Secretary-General’s office. The campaign was created by an act of the UN General Assembly, which has declared 2012 “The Year of Sustainable Energy for All.” (See Resolution 65/151)

What did I have to do with all this? Not much. But anyone who has been watching this space will recall the work I did in 2009 for UNDESA’s Division for Sustainable Development. The vision for the Big Push was not mine (it was Tariq Banuri’s, former director of DSD) nor were most of the ideas and analyses that went into it (I was building on the work of many people, inside and outside the UN, and especially the World Economic and Social Survey 2009). My job was to help assemble a coherent strategy document to take to the Copenhagen CoP-15 climate summit, in December 2009. Working with a number of colleagues, we pieced together something that I still think of as being beautiful and elegant in design:  a high-leverage, large-scale program for spreading renewables quickly in the world’s poor countries, with the effect of improving people’s lives, while also accelerating the renewables market in the rich countries and speeding the transition to a renewable energy future.

The “Big Push” strategy paper was well-received:  we quickly won the endorsement of many leading climate/energy researchers, plus WWF International and other NGOs. You can download that strategy document by clicking here.

Copenhagen did not work out as anyone hoped, of course, and the strategy paper just lay there for awhile. But I could not let it go. The vision and ideas may have originated from others (the “Innovators” in this specific case), but in classic “Change Agent” fashion, I had become thoroughly convinced that this was an idea that had to happen, if we were to achieve the transformation to a sustainable world in reasonable time.

So I began to make some noise about creating an independent, international “Big Push Campaign,” outside the UN system. I talked to friends in leadership positions, recruited the excellent help of an astrophysicist-turned-energy-researcher at Harvard (Achim Tappe, thank you!), networked with other experts, and even had the marvelous opportunity to present the Big Push concept as an opening speech to this year’s World Renewable Energy Congress (Anders Wijkman, thank you!). You can access the text of my speech to the Congress by clicking here.

At the heart of the original strategy is the idea of spreading, and globally subsidizing, the pricing mechanism called a “Feed-in Tariff,” or “FiT”. This involves guaranteeing that if you build a renewable energy installation, you can sell the resulting electricity to the grid, at a subsidized price. The mechanism works incredibly well, and has driven the explosion of wind and solar development in Denmark, Germany, Spain and other countries. New countries keep adding it (Japan just did), but others are also drawing in the brakes (as the UK just did), because it works too well (think some people).

There were many other technical, policy, and outreach aspects to this plan, which you can read about in the original paper, and in the more advanced technical ones that followed, such as Deutsche Bank’s studies for the Secretary-General’s advisory group 2010 and 2011, focusing on how to create a global “FiT” mechanism while managing the risks etc. How did all of this, and many other streams of activity, work together to become the new UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative? To be honest, I really have no idea; I moved on to other projects at the UN (like this one), and no longer have a direct window into that process. Did my work in 2009 have any impact in 2010 and 2011? I’d like to think so — I know UNDESA really spread that paper around, both inside the UN system and outside — but I really don’t know, one way or the other. That’s the consulting life:  you engage with a system, you do something, the system changes … and you never really know if those changes happened (even just in part, even just a tiny little bit) because you engaged with the system … or if the system would have changed anyway, with or without you. Understanding this basic truth keeps one feeling very humble about consulting work, even when it feels “important”. Perhaps especially then.

The most important question, however, is certainly not whether my work had any impact. Not even the technical side of renewable energy scale-up is much of a question at this point:  it’s well established now that the technologies work, the policy mechanisms work, the market works. There are exciting breakthroughs on sustainable energy happening, and being reported, nearly every day. (My current favorite is this one:  indoor solar lighting using only a plastic bottle, water, and a piece of tin or aluminum. It’s spreading like wildfire in the Philippines, where it was invented. Check it out on this short BBC video.)

The really big question is, will these strategies actually work? What clearly isn’t working yet is marshaling the political will to actually transform the global energy system, as the UK government’s recent pull-back on their highly successful FiT program illustrates all too dismally. What isn’t working yet is the serious mobilization of capital, at the scale we really need, and in the right direction. What isn’t working yet is the removal of fossil fuel subsidies that push the whole planet in the wrong direction, while helping the world’s richest energy companies get richer. Etc. etc. etc. There is certainly a lot to do … and there are a lot of powerful interests at play.

So at this point, it no longer makes much sense for me to try to recruit others into a new and separate global campaign, as one among a dozen projects on my plate. Instead, I’ve started putting my shoulder to the wheel of the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative, promoting it through every channel I have access to. It’s not enough, as we all know, even to have a UN General Assembly resolution and the UN Secretary-General pushing an agenda like this.

It’s going to take a Big Push from all of us.

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