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The energy trilemma for developing countries

Andrew Scott's picture
Andrew Scott
August 2012

The recent breakdown of the electricity supply in northern India is a stark reminder of the importance of energy for economic and social progress.  For a time, more than 600 million electricity consumers were left without power, joining the 300 million in India who are permanently without access to electricity.  There will be enquiries into the causes of this power sector failure, but already the pundits are assigning government policy part of the blame.

Energy policy tends to consist of three objectives.  Policy makers' balancing of these three sometimes conflicting objectives has been called 'the Energy Trilemma' by the World Energy Council.  The exact nature of this trilemma varies between organisations according to their purpose and functions, and how they define their own objectives.  For the World Energy Council, the three objectives to be balanced are energy security, equitable access and environmental sustainability.  For the European Union, they are security of supply, sustainable development and competitiveness, and for the power corporation Eon, they are reducing carbon emissions, security of supply, and (energy) cost. 

The Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative, which has provided the focus of much of the debate about energy and development over the past year, also has three objectives:

  • ensuring universal access to modern energy services
  • doubling the rate of improvement in energy efficiency
  • doubling the share of renewable energy in the global mix.

These objectives are an attempt to drive progress on improving levels of access to modern energy services and progress on minimizing the environmental effects of energy consumption.  The SE4All objectives reflect the energy trilemma in most developing countries, who need to increase energy consumption in order to meet development needs. 

For SE4All, the trilemma is to be resolved through voluntary commitments by different stakeholders to one or more of SE4All’s objectives.  Of the 155 commitments announced during the Rio+20 Conference, roughly 30% were concerned with access to energy services and 70% with renewable energy and energy efficiency.  Developing country national governments can ‘opt in’ to the initiative and receive support for their own strategy to balance the objectives.  Over 50 have already done so.  Donor governments are committing to provide this support (though not, it seems, to take action in their own domestic energy policy), and businesses are committing to take action to improve energy efficiency and increase the use of renewable energy (mostly within their own operations). 

The SE4ALL initiative provides a framework and focus for dialogue. For the initiative to be effective, it will require continued promotion, co-ordination and monitoring. At a practical level, common metrics to assess progress on access to energy and sustainability will be needed.  But perhaps most importantly, sustained international and high-level leadership will be needed to maintain the interest that has been generated to date and to ensure that the commitments made are delivered.  SE4All has been fortunate in its champions so far, within the UN system (Ban Ki-moon and Kandeh Yumkella) and outside (Andris Piebalgs in the European Commission).  It will need the same kind of championing over the next two or three years to bring about the transformation in energy services that is required.

The scale of change in the energy sector by 2030 that is called for by the SE4All objectives is ambitious and it remains to be seen whether voluntary commitments will collectively result in this scale of progress.  Commitments are not actions, and one person or country’s resolution of the energy trilemma, their own balancing of the three objectives, may be perceived by another to be an imbalance.  Though many of the SE4All commitments could contribute both to increasing access to modern energy services and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it cannot be assumed that this will always be the case.

In efforts to sustain and deepen progress greater attention needs to be paid to the associated environmental costs.  In the report Mapping Progress: evidence for a new development outlook, it was stated that ’growth that comes at the expense of the natural environment can undermine the wellbeing of current and future generations substantially and threaten the sustainability of growth.’  Progress therefore depends on taking full account of the environmental effects of the energy consumption that is associated with economic growth.