By Luis Felipe López-Calva
UNITED NATIONS, Thursday November 7, 2019 (IPS) – The UN Climate Action Summit 2019, which took place
in the days leading up to the 74th UN General Assembly, delivered new pathways
and practical actions for governments and private sector to intensify climate
Among these, it
recognized that the path towards protecting our planet requires a fundamental
change in terms of how households, and the society as a whole, produce and
efforts, we are still not moving slowly in terms of investments in clean
energy. According to the International Energy Agency, in 2018 alone global
energy-related CO2 emissions rose 1.7 per cent to a historic high, driven by
higher energy demand.
While LAC is a
region whose contribution to global carbon emission from energy generation has
been relatively low (contributing to less than eight per cent of total
emissions worldwide), it has contributed significantly to the solution by
moving firmly into more renewable sources of energy.
Energy needs to be
transformed in order to be useful. Primary sources of energy – those found in
nature such as coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear fuels, the sun, wind or rivers –
need to be transformed into electricity (a so-called secondary source) to be
used by industry, households, services and transportation, among other things.
electricity cannot yet be stored at a large scale: it is either used or lost.
The process of electricity generation produces a series of effects that
inevitably have an impact on people and the environment, albeit some more than
That is, social
and environmental impacts differ if electricity is generated by burning coal,
inundating a valley, or building a wind farm, with effects varying from
greenhouse gas emissions, displacement of local populations, and disturbances
to local ecosystems (i.e. wind farms threaten flying wildlife).
The goal in
energy planning is to balance benefits and costs, aiming ideally to find
mechanism that internalize the environmental impact (either through markets or
through regulation, both of which require effective governance: clear, stable
and credibly enforced rules).
So, how does LAC
fare in terms of its energy use? According to a widely used index, the “energy
intensity indicator”, LAC is the most efficient region in the world when it
comes to energy use.
This index captures the amount of energy needed to generate one dollar of product or service. LAC is also becoming more efficient over time, with the index falling in past years, suggesting that the region is doing relatively more with less energy.
To a large extent
due to the presence of large hydroelectric power generators, 52 per cent of
LAC’s energy came from renewable sources (by 2013). This is almost three times
higher than the global average of 22 per cent and has been increasing steadily
over the past two decades
clearly many challenges ahead. Among the most pressing is related precisely to
the impact of climate change on renewable energy generation: hydropower may be
a highly efficient renewable energy system, but it is becoming less reliable due
to changing weather patterns.
This has been
exacerbated by the effect of the El Niño and La Niña phenomena, which strongly
influence rain levels in the region. In parts of South America, these lead to
reduced rains and to droughts that hinder the capacity to generate electricity
from hydro sources, resulting in a need to increase the generation of
electricity based on fossil fuels to be able to meet growing demands.
In other parts of
the region, namely the deepest southern end of the continent, these phenomena
produce extreme increases in rain, resulting in an unprecedented increase of
water levels that affect families and lead to high vulnerability for the
It is also
crucial to understand the distributional impacts of continuing the transition
towards renewable sources of energy in LAC. Energy transitions will have
unequal distribution of their costs and benefits, particularly for communities
that depend on traditional energy infrastructure for their livelihoods.
prices can also trigger protests, as we have seen in various countries in the
region including Brazil, Mexico, and most recently Ecuador (although, in this
case, the rise in price was not explicitly due to a transition to renewable
sources but its was clearly related to “pricing the carbon right”, by the phasing
out of fuel subsidies).
affordability, as well as a comprehensive understanding of winners, losers, and
potential instruments for compensation and mitigation, will be critical
components for a sustainable transition.
So, what is the
future of energy in LAC? While hydropower will continue to be the largest
energy source in the region for a while, exploiting its complementarities with
other renewable energy sources will be key to ensure sustainability.
This change is
facilitated by the fact that technological advances have allowed for a
reduction in cost and improvement in efficiency of using these renewable
sources (solar and wind, for example). Countries addressing diversification
efforts are working to create the enabling policy and regulatory environments
for other renewable sources –such as wind and solar– to flourish.
recent auctions in Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and Peru have helped to
accelerate the deployment of thousands of megawatts of wind and solar energy in
the region. Opportunities for investments are vast.
Promoting the use
of clean energy in efficient ways is a critical objective in our fight against
climate change. LAC has been at the forefront in the use of renewable sources,
being a relatively low carbon emitter.
are challenges ahead, with the regional demand for energy expected to keep
growing as countries develop and poverty levels fall. Investments and changes
in the policy environment will be needed to continue to transition towards
sustainable renewable sources of energy.
As Nick Stern stated recently: If we get it right, clean energy – and climate action in general – is the inclusive growth story of the 21st Century.
* Luis Felipe López-Calva is UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean