18 Oct 2016

In Conversation with Tim Dobermann

Energy for Sustainable Development

Tim Dobermann
What kind of work do you do?
By training, I am a development economist. I look at policies which can help a country grow, taking into account the specific context. My time has been spent in developing Asia, working together with the government in Myanmar on various economic issues, energy chief among them. I am analyzing how to increase access to electricity in Myanmar, a country which, like parts of Africa, remains without modern forms of energy in rural areas.

What inspires your work?
We take energy for granted. Energy powers our lives and makes things possible. With the exception of agriculture, learning how to harness energy has been our greatest invention to date. It is hard to grasp how much energy has done for us; how much it has transformed society. The only word I can think of is magical. My inspiration comes from knowing that 1.3 billion people – just under one in five people – still do not have access to electricity. This has to change.

How can we encourage people in rural livelihoods to shift to clean energy?
As you know, our rapid use of energy has created a new challenge: human-induced climate change. Burning things for energy emits gases into the atmosphere which trap heat. This is the first challenge to address. The second challenge is pollution from dirtier forms of energy, which are tremendously harmful. In rural areas, many people still rely on cooking with solid fuels like wood, charcoal, or crop waste in open fires or traditional stoves. And by many, I mean 2.9 billion people, mostly women. Dirty smoke is released, making it a huge health hazard.

Indoor air pollution kills, but this fact is not common knowledge. The first way to encourage using cleaner energy is through greater education and awareness. A lot of work has been done on educating people about these issues, and it is an area I think young people excel at. Importantly, people need to be presented with alternatives that are affordable and easy to access. Young people can be a valuable source for reaching out to rural communities to discuss these issues and the benefits from changing behavior.

What alternatives would these people have?
Let me continue with the cookstoves example. An immediate alternative is to use clean cooking fuels and stoves. This saves time for women and girls who otherwise have to walk great lengths to gather firewood or other solid fuels. Instead, liquid petroleum gas (LPG) could be used, which burns much cleaner. Right away the follow up question is: how can we get this fuel?

This is where governments and organizations can step in. First, they can educate and inform people of the risks. Second, they can provide access to cleaner fuels and better stoves at a subsidized (more affordable) rate. Implementing this isn’t easy, but we’ve seen success in countries like Bangladesh and Laos.

With the power and influence that the fossil fuel industry commands how can renewables be promoted?
For a long time the fossil fuel industry waged a war against climate change, labelling it a conspiracy or selling doubt on the validity of the scientific claims. They are now losing the war. In December of last year, governments from around the world made the first big declaration to aggressively combat climate change. The work is just beginning, but this marks the starting point for a cleaner future.

The share of renewables has been growing rapidly in recent years. The cost of solar has plummeted, making it attractive in many conditions. What I find encouraging is that developing countries are also doing their part in adopting renewables: last year, developing countries invested more into renewable energy than developed countries, the first time ever. This is significant because it is the developing countries in Africa and Asia which will see their energy consumption grow in the next few decades – getting them onto a clean energy mix from the outset will be a tremendous success.

Is there political will in the quest to shift to clean energy?
The political will for shifting to clean energy has never been higher. We now know that it is possible, using the technology we have today, to re-invent our energy system at an affordable cost. Add on top of this the exciting innovations taking place in areas like solar and battery storage, and we get a very promising outlook going forwards.

I am very optimistic as a result. There has been great momentum in political will since December, when countries met in Paris to agree on a landmark climate deal. The United States and China, the two largest emitters historically, have gotten serious. China alone accounted for one-third of all investments into renewables last year, a fantastic step. There will always be some resistance, but it is clear that the tides have changed.

In which ways can we sensitize youth to be more conscious of how they use energy?
First and foremost, climate change should be an integral part of the education system. The average person is not familiar with how energy works and how we have been damaging the environment for many years now. Again, awareness is growing at all levels in society, but this should be formalized. Youth organizations have a unique opportunity to engage with their peers on these issues. In my mind, the most effective way to illustrate the importance of not wasting energy is by making comparative examples. We’ve seen this in campaigns on water use – taking shorter showers, eating less meat – but the same has not been done for energy.

Renewables are capital intensive, how will the use of clean energy be funded, especially in Africa?
Africa has remarkable potential for renewables. There has never been more climate finance flowing around to develop new projects, but that is only a slice of the overall amount which is needed. My recommendation is that financing for such projects should come from the private sector, with the government and international organizations supporting them. Many investors are eager to build solar farms in Africa, but some of the government policies are not in place to support them. If there is uncertainty on prices, uncertainty on the political environment, or weak existing infrastructure which is unable to handle the variable output of renewable energy, then investors might not come. The government should work together with the private sector to make sure they put in the right policies in place to create an environment conducive for renewable energy investments. International organizations like the World Bank or African Development Bank are great bodies to coordinate these efforts.

What role will energy play in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Agenda?
Energy is integral to the SDGs. It directly relates to the goals on clean energy (SDG7) and climate action (SDG13), but also indirectly to many others: poverty eradication (SDG1), decent work and economic growth (SDG8), sustainable cities (SDG11), and more. There is no way to avoid discussing energy when thinking about the sustainable development agenda.

Last remarks to young people:
Energy has made the world rich, but unless we change course and source energy from cleaner forms our love for it may end up taking away what we hold most dear: our environment. Energy-related issues will define our generation, so my last remark is this: learn about energy, spread the word, and use the gifts of the smartest and most connected generation ever to find innovative solutions.

Tim Dobermann is a Country Economist for the International Growth Centre in Myanmar and Project Lead for Research and Policy for SDSN Youth. His work focuses on energy and its importance for development. He holds a postgraduate degree in economics from the London School of Economics.