Access to clean, affordable energy is the key to solving the world’s most concerning issues, according to new research.

A paper published Monday in Nature Energy found that cheap, efficient energy systems could help secure global peace, achieve equality and eliminate extreme poverty, meanwhile addressing climate change and reducing pollution-related deaths.

The research analysed the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs) and 169 targets, finding that 113 targets were contingent on one SDG – number 7, which is access to clean, affordable energy.

“This paper helps us think through the place of energy across our economic and social systems and, by extension, helps us understand our relationship with our environment,” paper co-author and professor of energy and development policy at University College London Yacob Mulugetta said.

“By exploring these interdependencies, this paper argues that the transition to a clean energy future cannot be separated from the important goal of building a fairer and more just society.”

The report lists five targets to be achieved by 2030:

  • ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services
  • increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix
  • double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • enhance international cooperation to facilitate access to clean energy research and technology
  • promote investment in energy infrastructure and clean energy technology

Energy systems don’t just give us electricity

Energy systems give us electricity, but the research said they provided much more.

There is evidence that electricity availability in both schools and homes affects education quality, either hindering or allowing students’ access to free, equitable and good quality primary and secondary education, lead author and assistant professor in the division of energy systems analysis at KTH Royal Institute of Technology Francesco Fuso Nerini said.

Electricity is also important for access to information and communication technologies, which support adult education and global citizenship. This would be critical to eliminate local and global inequalities, empowering the social, economic and political inclusion of all, the paper said.

Energy is also needed to power medical facilities, water treatment and distribution systems and food systems.

However, nearly 1.2 billion people in the world lack access to electricity, and three billion do not have access to clean cooking facilities. These statistics prove that energy serves as a foundation for economic and social development, and without access it would be impossible to eliminate poverty, the paper said.

In order to achieve the SDG targets, existing energy systems and infrastructures will need to be significantly upgraded so that sustainable industrialisation, production and consumption stays up to date with climate change and growing population demands.

Energy systems also contribute to climate change, producing 60 per cent of total anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. As a result, energy systems must be focused on combating climate change impacts.

Urgency for better organisation and collaboration between actors

The researchers emphasised the urgent need for policymakers, researchers and other actors to work together to establish stable structures to enforce these new energy systems.

There is a tension between the need to rapidly address energy issues, like energy access, and the need for complex, efficient energy systems that will support long-term development outcomes.

But only with balance will these needs be attended to, and this will require new skills and capacities from all those involved to build country-specific and regional strategies.

“Considerations of rights, justice and equity must be integrated into the exploration of solutions for these complex energy dilemmas  to ensure we leave no one behind,” the report said.

“Every target counts, and no single target should be overlooked in efforts to achieve SDG7.”

The researchers said this cannot be achieved in “sectoral isolation,” but rather researchers can better support policymakers to help them think systematically about how actions to achieve each goal affect each other within and between sectors.

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