Energy is essential to heat homes and cook meals. It is needed to deliver proper health care in hospitals and to teach children. It is essential for economic growth and development and for powering industries, farms and businesses. It is at the heart of any effort to make a better life possible for people all over the world, in particular for the world’s poorest.
As an economist dealing with energy efficiency on a daily basis, I have studied and written about its benefits for several countries. But it was not until recently that I got around to looking into it at home.
It all started with my work with the World Bank’s energy efficiency agenda, particularly after the G8 Forum asked the Bank in 2006 to prepare a “Clean Energy Investment Framework”. Soon thereafter, we supported a series of low carbon country case studies in India, South Africa, Brazil, Mexico, and China. A number of clear messages were delivered to us, including: “our priority is economic growth and poverty reduction”.
So how were we to get the best of both worlds – a reduction in the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions (like carbon dioxide) and continued economic growth?
Early in the morning on Saturday, January 19, 2013, negotiators from around 140 countries completed negotiations for the Mercury Treaty that will be adopted later this year in Japan. It will be known as the Minamata Convention, in deference to the victims of mercury poisoning from industrial pollution that occurred when residents of the Minamata Bay ingested contaminated fish and shellfish in the 1950s.
The Convention that took four years to negotiate under the auspices of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) joins the ranks of a number of treaties that address chemicals and wastes. It is the first treaty to specifically address heavy metals.
Why is the international community concerned about mercury? Mercury is typically released into the environment in metallic, or “elemental”, form, or as an inorganic salt. In elemental form, it easily vaporises and can be transported great distances worldwide. When deposited in the environment, mercury eventually can be transformed to its organic forms, including Methylmercury, which is highly toxic and readily accumulates and bioconcentrates in animals and humans. Eventually, mercury settles in cold climates and bioconcentrates up the food chains to the point that Indigenous Peoples in the North that rely on traditional foods are exposed to damaging high levels.
One of the reasons heavy metals are difficult to address is that they are mobilised through human activities, but they are also released in the environment through natural processes, for example through volcanic eruptions or in deep-sea vents. Nevertheless, estimates are that at any given time, 90% of the mercury cycling in the environment is linked to human activities – hence the need for action. The recently released UNEP Global Mercury Assessment 2013 outlines major sources of emissions, geographic and temporal trends, and behaviour in the environment.
Moreover, international action is warranted because of the transboundary dimension of the issue. In the United States for example, it is estimated that half the mercury in fish caught in rivers comes from anthropogenic Continental sources – predominantly from coal burning – whilst the other half represents emissions from Asia. At the same time, by some estimates, approximately 50% of US releases are deposited beyond the country’s border. This is textbook justification for international action.
Here in Cancun, the discussions on energy efficiency made me reflect on the "big picture" about energy efficiency in Africa. For years this subject has been near and dear to my heart. As Director for Energy in the World Bank I saw how much there is to gain from solid energy efficiency plans in developing countries. I saw how increasing costs of energy can encourage serious action on efficiency. Now, as Director for Sustainable Development in Africa, I see how committed African countries are to improving energy efficiency and making smart use of demand-side management in their efforts to combat climate change.
This week I met with at least nine Ministers of Environment at the margins of the Cancun COP. Each one of them mentioned the importance of energy access but this was qualified with the fact that this energy must be clean and it must be used efficiently. For many of these governments, it is no longer enough to speak of clean energy in isolation. They prefer to think about it in the context of their integrated low carbon development agendas.
Given that 560 million people in sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to modern energy, African countries must expand power generation and access if they're going to reduce poverty. The trick is they will have to do it in climate-smart ways and this is where energy efficiency is an important win-win.
Saving Electricity–One Bulb at a Time!
|Waiting in line to exchange lightbulbs|
On a crisp October morning, all across Bangladesh in 39 districts, they flocked to their nearest schools and community centers, clutching their electricity bills and carrying small bags of used incandescent bulbs. There was much excitement and curiosity in the air – people stood in long snaking queues, gathered to chit-chat and watch what was going on. Men, women and even children waited patiently; expectantly.
They were waiting for the second round of free distribution of energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) to begin.
CFLs consume one-fifth energy compared to regular bulbs. At a time when Bangladesh’s power generation capacity is much below the energy demand, using CFLs can significantly help in reducing peak electricity demand.
This is great news for the energy starved people of Bangladesh, many of whom have to endure hours of power cuts every day. During peak hours, the country faces electricity shortages of about 1,500-2,000 MW. In some areas, this means power cuts for at least 6 - 8 hours a day! Using CFLs will save electricity and help the people cut back on their electricity bills.
If you were in Bangladesh in June, you would have found teachers in schools, preachers in mosques, and ads in newspapers, television, loudspeakers and pamphlets, encouraging people to bring in their incandescent bulbs to exchange with new Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) – and encouraged they were! On Saturday, June 19th 2010, at over 1,400 rural and urban distribution centers spread across 27 districts, manned by teachers, utility workers and other volunteers, Bangladeshis collectively took home about five million high quality CFL bulbs, in the first round of distribution.
They broke a record set by the British in January of 2008, for the most number of CFL bulbs distributed in a single day―some 4.5 million. In June, the Government and people of Bangladesh were inspired to do even better … and they did!