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Renewable energy vital to reducing inequalities in Asia-Pacific

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A Sumbanese woman gathers grass to feed farm animals beside a field of small wind turbine in Kamanggih village in Sumba island located in central Indonesia, bringing electricity to the local community. AFP

Renewable energy vital to reducing inequalities in Asia-Pacific

In the remote corners of Sumatra and Papua in Indonesia, and in other isolated communities across Asia and the world, access to energy for all remains a huge development challenge. This, despite impressive economic growth over the last few decades.

According to the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UNESCAP), about 326 million people in Asia and the Pacific do not have access to electricity. In Indonesia alone, there are over 10 million people without reliable access to electricity, mainly in the eastern part of the country.

For people in hard-to-reach villages of the Himalayas, or isolated islands of Indonesia, fossil fuels are scarce and expensive. Here the most feasible option is to construct off-grid or mini-grid power systems using locally available renewable resources – such as solar, hydro or biomass energy. Several studies have substantiated this, including a 2018 study by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) on policies and regulations for renewable energy mini-grids.

The expansion of renewable energy is one of the most crucial climate actions that governments and societies can take to transition to clean growth and shift to a low-carbon development path. It is a key part of the solution to combat climate change.

In Asia-Pacific countries, including Indonesia, the UN Development Program (UNDP) supports the expanded use of renewable energy, particularly in an effort to reach remote communities and provide them with a sustained source of energy, for both domestic and economic use. This energy is environmentally friendly and economically attractive and is in line with Sustainable Development Goal 7 – affordable and clean energy. It is also in keeping with our commitment to “leave no one behind”.

In the isolated village of Jambi, Sumatra, micro-hydro power plants – built with an innovative partnership between the UNDP, Baznas and Bank Jambi – have brought electricity to over 4,000 men, women and children, transforming a community’s way of life.

On another front, our cooperation with the Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA) will soon result in clean energy to poor communities in eastern Indonesia and neighbouring Timor Leste through solar power panels. Similar hydro and solar energy projects are being implemented in countries from Nepal to Samoa.

Harnessing clean renewable energy contributes to tangible gains in income, job skills, health and education. As we have seen in the villages of Jambi and elsewhere, renewable energy infrastructure has brought electricity to communities, improved access to safe and clean water, benefitted adults engaged in productive enterprises and allowed children to study after sunset.

Renewable energy also harbors a huge, often overlooked potential to reduce inequalities.

The UNDP’s 2019 Human Development Report – Beyond Income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century – shows beyond a doubt that inequalities deeply harm human development. This is also true for a new generation of inequalities that are emerging due to revolution 4.0 and climate change. And one of those areas for action is the call for public policy and investments in renewables.

Expansion of renewable energy and electricity, specifically targeted at those left behind by economic growth, can help redress existing and emerging inequalities. It can support the development of new livelihoods in areas particularly affected by climate change, or provide connectivity and access to technology to reduce the digital divide.

The question is no longer about the overall business case for renewable energy, as costs have spiraled down in recent years. The fundamental question now is whether enough is being done to create an attractive ecosystem for renewable energy investments, including in remote areas, where it is most needed and is still not economically attractive.

To create such an ecosystem, countries in Asia and the Pacific need bolder policies that provide incentives for private and public investments in renewable energy. In Indonesia, regulations for private investments in the energy sector do not provide incentives to small and medium private investors for following this path.

An important step has been taken with the creation of SDG Indonesia One – a blended finance platform established by the government and supported by the UNDP and many other partners such as multilateral development banks and the private sector.

SDG Indonesia One makes it more attractive to invest in small and medium renewable projects, in rural areas. It provides technical assistance grants to “de-risk” investments and enhance the bankability of small and medium projects that target small islands and isolated areas. The hope is that this will help expand access to energy, and thereby also accelerate progress across several SDGs. Policy changes will have to accompany this effort as well, if this is to be a sustained successful effort.

As an economically dynamic region with considerable public and private capital, technology and innovation, the Asia-Pacific region has the potential to be a leader in providing access to clean energy to millions of people who need it. Our resolve is to bring innovative solutions and forge new partnerships to achieve this goal, with governments, partners and businesses, across the Asia-Pacific region.

It is undeniable that growing access to renewable energy is having a significant development impact on people’s lives. It is time to expand this access across communities and nations. This is what we refer to as an “SDG accelerator” that contributes to several SDGs targets. It also provides a “real face” to the inequality-reducing nature of the SDG agenda – the face of a community that now has a source of power and light.

Kanni Wignaraja is UN assistant general and UNDP Asia-Pacific director. Christophe Bahuet is UNDP Indonesia resident representative. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not reflect the official stance of the Jakarta Post.

THE JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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