The United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) will work together to improve access to sustainable energy, bolstering the Asia-Pacific region’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The two organisations will offer recommendations to governments in the region positioning the energy transition as an integral part of the immediate response to the crisis and medium to long-term recovery efforts.
Asia-Pacific, home to half of the world’s population, is largely dependent on fossil fuels. Diesel, for instance, fuels the majority of the region’s off-grid electricity needs. According to ESCAP, 200 million people in the Asia Pacific region live without electricity and 1.2 billion people without access to clean cooking fuel. Joint efforts will focus on developing sustainable energy policies that are closely integrated with health and industrial development policies to bolster recovery efforts and rebuild economies.
“The pandemic is an opportunity for us to rethink our economic growth path that has come at a heavy cost to the people and planet,” said Armida Salsiah Alisjahbana, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of ESCAP. “To bring about a fundamental shift for the energy transition, we need to adopt the motto of ‘no more business as usual’ for all stakeholders. Policymakers should not lose sight of the looming climate crisis, but rather design economic stimulus packages with social inclusion and environmental sustainability built into every decision in particular sustainable energy development.”
“We are living in truly unprecedented times, calling for decisive and cooperative action among the international community to save lives and support livelihoods all over the world,” said IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera. “The Asia-Pacific region faces unique energy challenges that undermine the ability of governments to respond to this crisis and build economic resilience. Renewables can underpin these efforts and therefore can play an instrumental role in both the response and the recovery.”
With national budgets strained by immediate COVID-19 needs, short to medium-term energy access investment may represent less of a priority for governments. However, underinvestment in this area could severely impact the capacity of rural health centres to support front-line health workers and provide essential services to COVID-19 patients. When a vaccine does become available, the provision of cold storage and refrigerated transport across large areas will be critical. Decentralized renewable energy technologies such as solar will be key for large-scale immunization efforts in developing countries.
Furthermore, slow progress in mainstreaming clean cooking solutions may expose millions of people to the dangerous combination of particulates and COVID-19. Scientists are already investigating links between air pollution and higher levels of coronavirus mortality, with preliminary results showing a probable correlation between the two.
Renewables can be deployed rapidly and are therefore well-placed to support immediate crisis response efforts including electrification of public health value chains. In the medium to long-term, renewables-based energy systems can also be an engine of sustainable growth. Renewable energy costs in many parts of the world now outcompete traditional energy sources, presenting cost saving opportunities for governments and consumers while boosting energy security, building energy independence and supporting climate-related nationally determined contributions.
According to IRENA’s recently launched Global Renewables Outlook report, renewables can supply more than half of all power needs in Southeast Asia alone by 2030, boosting the regional economy by more than 4.4 per cent and growing jobs by close to 50 per cent in the process. In a recent COVID-19 policy report for Asia and the Pacific, ESCAP identified renewable energy as one of the main sectors to include in stimulus packages.
During the 10th IRENA Assembly last January, ESCAP and IRENA signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to increase the uptake of renewable energy in the Asia-Pacific region, support the implementation of the Paris Agreement, and contribute to the achievement of SDG7 by 2030.