Now or never: SDG7 out of reach without decisive action

by Sheila Oparaocha and Hans Olav Ibrekk. This article was originally published on Power for All


With less than a decade left to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we have made significant progress toward SDG7 on affordable and clean energy for all. Globally, the population having access rose from 83 percent in 2010 to 90 percent in 2019, according to the 2021 edition of Tracking SDG7: The Energy Progress Report. In particular, electrification through decentralized renewable-based solutions gained momentum. The number of people connected to minigrids has more than doubled between 2010 and 2019, growing from 5 to 11 million people.

However, despite this remarkable growth in electrification, we’re still falling short. Sub-Saharan Africa remains the region with the largest access deficit, accounting for three-quarters of the global deficit. For the first time in six years, in 2020, the number of people without access to electricity is set to increase. In addition, basic electricity services became unaffordable for up to 30 million people in developing Asia and Africa who had previously gained electricity access. 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. Continued reliance on polluting fuels and inefficient technologies will have dramatic consequences for the environment, economic development, and most notably, on the health of women and children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further revealed the vast inequalities in access to reliable energy and how that impacts other much-needed public services like health care, as well as vulnerable groups. This has highlighted the need to expand energy access to help populations in rural and peri-urban areas to mitigate the effects of the crisis, to go beyond just lighting and advance economic development, gender equality, and education.

SDG7 as an enabler for the 2030 Agenda

We need to address energy poverty if we want to end poverty. To realize this, there is a global need for an integrated approach of electricity access, with decentralized energy development as well as expansion of national grids and improved financial performance of utilities. This includes carefully managing the global energy transformation to ensure equity and inclusiveness. Making a rapid transition to a clean energy future for all will have enormous impacts on the quality of people’s daily lives, as well as the survival of future generations.

By ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030, we have the opportunity to open a new world of opportunities for billions of people through new economic opportunities and jobs, youth and women empowerment, food security and improved nutrition, better education and health, more sustainable, equitable and inclusive communities, and greater protections from, and resilience to, climate change.

Building back better, greener, faster

The economic and social shock of the pandemic has understandably drawn attention away from the SDGs and climate agendas. However, the shock of the pandemic presents an unexpected opportunity for advancing sustainable energy in keeping with global goals and reducing social and economic inequality. With strategic planning and collaboration, we need to use this otherwise tragic time as a catalyst for ‘building back better, greener and faster’. To drive a more comprehensive pandemic recovery and build back better, the recovery agenda must be aligned with the clean energy agenda and a just and inclusive energy transition that will support new jobs and more equitable societies.

Investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy offer greater returns than fossil fuels in the form of job creation while also targeting key areas for carbon emissions reduction, helping to advance climate objectives. Economic stimulus packages, aimed at reinvigorating growth in the renewable energy sector, can have a multiplier effect, yielding higher economic returns, increased job creation and reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Accelerating the race to net zero

We must capitalize on the global momentum towards net-zero to advance SDG7 action in pursuit of the 1.5°C goal. Ambitions have been increased by many but current levels of ambition are not yet in line with a net-zero emissions trajectory by 2050. The International Energy Agency’s (IEA) roadmap for the global energy sector describes a net zero pathway that requires the immediate and massive deployment of all available renewable and efficient energy technologies, combined with a major global push to accelerate innovation. This demands that governments quickly increase and reprioritize their spending on research and development – as well as on demonstrating and deploying renewable energy technologies – putting them at the core of energy and climate policy.

At the global launch of a roadmap for achieving affordable and clean energy for all (SDG7) by 2030 and net-zero emissions by 2050, UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted that, “renewable energy is a key dimension of climate action and is crucial for building a sustainable, prosperous and peaceful future, our challenge is clear: to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, the world must cut carbon emissions by at least 45 per cent below 2010 levels within the next decade.” Time is now to take bold policy action facilitating a faster transition to sustainable energy systems.

A new opportunity for collective action

With the world preparing for the September 2021 launch of the first United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Energy in decades and the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), the time is right for us to enhance international collaboration and progress toward SDG7. UN entities, international organizations, multilateral development banks, businesses, civil society, academia, cities, regional governments and other stakeholders, must step up and strengthen their efforts to support the implementation of the SDGs with SDG7 at the heart of these efforts. We have to use this opportunity wisely to ensure that we deliver what our children and future generations expect from us.

Access to sustainable, clean and reliable energy can enable developing countries in Africa and South Asia to leapfrog the energy systems of the past and build the resilient, competitive, clean energy economies of the future. We count on your support to help us move toward sustainable energy for all and toward a sustainable future for all: the future we want. A continuation of a business-as-usual agenda is no longer acceptable.


Sheila Oparaocha and Hans Olav Ibrekk are Co-facilitators of the SDG7 Technical Advisory Group (TAG), which produced the 2021 SDG7 Policy Briefs in Support of the High-Level Political Forum, Leveraging Energy Action for Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals, a clear set of policy recommendations for governments, donors and multilateral agencies.