Our Man in Doha: Day Two - Sustainable energy systems and the 'World Energy Trilemma'

Day Two: Sustainable energy systems and the 'World Energy Trilemma'


The production and use of energy are at the heart of the climate challenge. I attended a talk hosted by the World Energy Council (WEC) that focused on what they termed the 'World Energy Trilemma'. Their 'trilemma' is made up of three dimensions that they believe determine the sustainability of an energy system: energy security; social equity; and, environmental impact mitigation.

Their recent report, Time to get real - the case for sustainable energy policy, shows which policies are needed to advance sustainable energy systems, according to senior energy industry executives from around the world. The report also includes an index that ranks 94 countries on the trilemma indices to compare the sustainability of their energy systems.

The UK ranks 15th overall (37th for energy security, 6th for social equity, and 35thfor environmental impact mitigation). At the top of the table were developed countries with pretty cheap energy and lots of hydro, renewables and nuclear. At the bottom were mainly developing countries with limited energy access and a heavier reliance on fossil fuels.

While the result was generally unsurprising, it sparked a question that I asked this afternoon at another side-event about renewables. All the heavy hitters of the renewable energy world were there, including the International Solar Energy AssociationInternational Geothermal AssociationInternational Hydropower AssociationWorld Bioenergy AssociationWorld Wind Energy Association, and theSustainable Business Institute. They all spoke about the challenges and successes of transitioning from a fossil fuel-dominated electricity system to a low-carbon one.

Given the insights of the trilemma ranking, I wondered whether there was any particular priority being given to those countries at the bottom of the barrel, since their energy systems were in the most need of rebalancing. After all, less than one in five Kenyans have access to electricity (so they score pretty poorly on the social equity dimension). Might it might make sense to somehow prioritise the clean development of their energy systems, not only to help deliver a basic need, but also to avoid the carbon lock-in that results from the construction of reliable, tested, familiar, but painfully durable fossil fuel energy infrastructure? Left unchecked, market forces would sooner build a traditional gas plant than a more unfamiliar (but more 'WEC-sustainable') geothermal one.

The panel looked a bit uncomfortable - their expertise was in stable, well-governed, wealthy countries like Germany and Sweden, which have impressive track records indeed. But to me, the value of the trilemma report was being missed. It highlights where the major work needs to be focused if the goal is sustainability and the scope is global, but it wasn't on the panel's radar.

The Green Climate Fund, the International Climate Fund and others are grappling with these issues. But I believe that 'climate compatible development' has to be in the crosshairs of major renewable advocates to enable leapfrogging and to avoid the construction of durable, carbon-heavy infrastructure in deprived areas in the first place. It's through that lens that the challenge of the trilemma can be effectively met. 

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