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Tracking SDG7: The energy progress report (2021)

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The 2021 edition of Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report monitors and assesses achievements in the global quest for universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy by 2030.
The latest available data and selected energy scenarios reveal that at today’s rate of progress, the world is not on track to achieve SDG 7. This is particularly true of the most vulnerable countries and those that were already lagging. This report also examines various ways to bridge the gaps, chief among them the goal of significantly scaling up renewable energy while maximizing its socioeconomic benefits. Figure ES.1 offers a snapshot of the primary indicators.

This report was prepared as the COVID-19 pandemic and its broad social and economic disruptions entered a second year. The consequences of the pandemic are considered in this report, along with results from global modeling exercises—first to determine whether current policy ambitions are meeting the SDG 7 targets and, second, to identify what additional actions might be needed. The report also examines the investments levels required to achieve the goals. It presents scenarios drawn from the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) flagship publication, World Energy Outlook (IEA 2020b), and the International Renewable Energy Agency’s (IRENA) Global Renewables Outlook: Energy Transformation 2050 (IRENA 2020a).

While renewable energy has demonstrated remarkable resilience during the pandemic, the unfortunate fact is that gains in energy access throughout Africa are being reversed: the number of people lacking access to electricity is set to increase in 2020, making basic electricity services unaffordable for up to 30 million people who had previously enjoyed access. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the stark worldwide inequalities in access to reliable energy and health care, especially in rural and peri-urban areas, and has highlighted the need to expand energy access to help populations mitigate the effects of the crisis.

With the world preparing for the September 2021 launch of the first United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Energy in decades, the time is right to enhance international collaboration and progress toward SDG 7. In this context, the SDG 7 custodian agencies—IEA, IRENA, the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO)—urge the international community and policy makers to safeguard existing gains toward SDG 7; not to lose sight of the need for continued action on affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all; and to maintain a strategic focus on the vulnerable countries needing the most support.

Universal access to electricity. SDG target 7.1 is universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy services; 7.1.1 focuses on access to electricity. Recent progress in access to electricity was mixed, as is the outlook for 2030. While the share of people with access grew up to 90 percent in 2019, 759 million people still lack it. Half live in fragile and conflict-affected settings and 84 percent in rural areas.
The IEA’s Stated Policies Scenario projects that in 2030 some 660 million people will still lack access to electricity. About 940 million people will have to be connected by 2030 to reach universal access. The COVID-19 crisis threatens progress in some parts of the world. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number of people without access to electricity most likely grew in 2020. This means the access rate will have to more than triple between now and 2030. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, this would mean connecting around 85 million people each year through 2030.

Clean cooking solutions. If clean cooking fails to secure a foothold in the global political agenda, 2.4 billion people will be left with no access in 2030, according to IEA’s Stated Policies Scenario. Continuing to rely on polluting fuels and ine"cient technologies will have dramatic consequences for the environment, economic development, and most notably, on the health of women and children. The challenge in Developing Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa is to understand, first, how cultural, economic, and social factors combine to slow progress; and, second, how to expand acceptance of affordable and available solutions centered on cleaner fuels, cookstoves with very low emissions, and e"cient electric appliances that can be plugged into the grid or run on solar photovoltaic (PV) panels connected to a battery.

Renewable energy. SDG target 7.2 is defined as a substantial increase in the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. Renewable energy has seen unprecedented growth over the past decade, particularly for the generation of electricity. During the COVID-19 pandemic, renewables have proven more resilient than other parts of the energy sector, and their short-term outlook shows resilience in all regions, helped along by supportive policies and falling technology costs. Despite progress, however, the share of renewables in total final energy consumption (TFEC) is still only 17 percent, not much higher than the year before—because TFEC has grown at the same rate as renewables. The fact is that deployment levels of renewables are still quite far from those needed to meet SDG 7 and to achieve a meaningful decarbonization of the energy sector. The IEA’s Sustainable Development Scenario shows that intensified policy support and cost reductions could push the share of modern renewables in TFEC above 25 percent, with renewables accounting for a little more than half of electricity supply. IRENA’s Transforming Energy Scenario goes further, showing how the rapid growth in renewable energy could continue over the coming decade, with its share in TFEC reaching 28 percent by 2030 and the share of renewable sources in power generation reaching 57 percent. In the power sector, both the IEA and IRENA scenarios envisage that solar PV and wind will account for most renewables-based electricity generation by 2030. The outlook for the use of renewables in transport and heat is not as strong. Despite its large share of final energy consumption, heat receives limited policy attention globally compared with other end-use sectors.

Energy effciency. SDG target 7.3 is to increase the global rate of improvement in energy e"ciency by 2030 to 2.6 percent annually (doubling the average of 1.3 percent achieved annually between 1990 and 2010).1 The rate of global primary energy intensity improvement—defined as the percentage decrease in the ratio of global total primary energy supply per unit of gross domestic product—has slowed in recent years. In the IEA’s Stated Policies Scenario, lower fuel prices are a key reason for a further slowing of the rate at which the energy intensity of the global economy improves. The annual rate of improvement stays at around 2 percent annually for 2019– 25 before rising slightly in subsequent years. In contrast, in the Sustainable Development Scenario, the average rate of improvement needed to meet the SDG 7.3 target has increased to 3 percent per year between 2018 and 2030, an increase of 0.4 percent from initial estimates prepared when the SDGs were developed.

International public financial flows. The SDG 7.a.1 indicator measures international public financial flows to developing countries in support of renewable energy. These flows amounted to USD 14 billion in 2018, a 35 percent decrease from an all-time high of USD 21.9 billion the year before. Nevertheless, the overall trend in public financial flows has been positive over the past decade, increasing threefold during the period 2010– 18 when viewed as a five-year moving average. This trend, however, masks some important distributional discrepancies, with financial commitments concentrated in a few countries and thus failing to reach many of those most in need of international support. The 46 least developed countries (LDCs) received a mere 20 percent of public financial flows over the period 2010–18 and a total of USD 2.8 billion in 2018—the same level as in 2017 but lower than in 2016 and 2015. IEA and IRENA scenarios project that renewables investment needs to increase considerably — in the power sector alone, investment would need to grow from USD 300 billion to USD 550-850 billion a year throughout 2019-30. This would need to be supported by additional investments to an expanded and modernized electricity network and grid battery storage. International public financial flows are critical to reach these investment levels and to leverage the necessary amounts of private capital, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dramatically increased investors’ risk perception and shifted public funding priorities in developing countries.