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Powering up for Johannesburg summit

FAO hosts UN Task Force on energy

United Nations energy experts will do all they can to see that energy gets its rightful place on the agenda at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next year. And they will work to this end with developing countries and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) before the Summit.


FAO is working to promote renewable energy for rural development.

The Summit will review progress in the 10 years since the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

The experts, members of the UN Inter-Agency Task Force on Energy, which met at FAO headquarters in Rome on 26-27 July, also welcomed the "rescue plan" for the Kyoto Protocol that was agreed to in Bonn that same week. The plan involved compromises over the arrangements for ensuring compliance with the Protocol and on the extent to which a country's forests can offset its carbon emissions. Although the United States has still not agreed to ratify the Protocol, the compromises persuaded Japan to accept it and effectively saved it from oblivion.

"The progress made in Bonn has given renewed optimism," said Dietrich Leihner in his welcome to the Task Force members. Dr Leihner, Director of the Research, Extension and Training Division of FAO's Sustainable Development Department, told the members that he would like to see a UN-wide approach to energy matters. "Work on energy at FAO started a long time ago," he said. "In the 1960s, the word 'sustainability' wasn't on the development agenda. But renewable natural resources, fuelwood and energy for development already were -- at FAO."

The Task Force includes all the UN agencies active in energy and the UN's regional commissions. It was formally established in 1998, but its members had already started to meet informally in the wake of the Rio summit. The Rio final plan of action (Agenda 21) had no chapter on energy. Neither is there an international energy agency other than the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), making the task force the only UN system-wide mechanism addressing the broad spectrum of energy matters.

Paving the way for Johannesburg
Preparations for the September 2002 Johannesburg event have already started, through the UN Commission on Sustainable Development. To help draw up the agenda, five regional roundtable meetings of development experts have taken place, the last in Kyrgyzstan at the end of July.


With help from FAO, Cambodian villagers use human and animal dung to produce gas which they use for cooking.
(FAO/17402/G. Buthaud)

Energy has emerged as one of the two key issues (the other has been fresh water), and developing countries have encouraged the UN to pay attention to it. Many developing countries hope that Johannesburg will adopt a concrete policy on sustainable energy use. The Task Force agreed that this should be discussed further at an upcoming meeting of energy experts in New Delhi, being organized by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) with India's Tata Energy Research Institute.

The United Nations agencies operate independently on energy matters, as their fields of operation are distinct. But the Task Force, which is chaired by DESA, provides a forum through which they can coordinate their activities.

"Although the UN agencies operate in different spheres, they complement each other," says JoAnne DiSano, Director of DESA's Division for Sustainable Development, who chaired the Rome meeting. "FAO has special expertise in renewable energy for rural development. UNEP is committed to efficient and renewable energy, UNESCO is involved in the World Solar Programme and UNIDO understands the use of energy in industry. The UN's regional commissions must consider energy as part of regional economic development and DESA undertakes technical assistance projects with an overall objective of promoting sustainable development. There's a lot of crossover between all these activities."

Energy: crucial to rural development
"At its simplest level, energy is about quality of life," says Gustavo Best, FAO's Senior Energy Coordinator. "A low-wattage, simple energy supply obtained from a solar panel can power a television or radio. This takes education and information to rural areas and, one hopes, reduces incentives to migrate to the city. It also gives access to information -- market prices and extension programmes -- that can help farmers raise their living standards."

On the other hand, lack of adequate energy constrains rural enterprise -- for example, limiting opportunities for processing industries that provide jobs.

FAO is particularly well placed to take the lead in developing technology for renewable energy, which is most likely to be cost-effective in rural areas. The further from the city and the lower the population density, the higher the cost of connecting to the national grid.

A case in point is Honduras, where about 65 percent of the population of 6 million live in rural areas, and there are about 7 000 rural communities for which connection to the grid is thought to be economically impracticable. FAO is working in collaboration with national institutions to assess energy needs. FAO is also helping implement small-scale hydro, solar and other renewable energy projects in southern Lempira, one of the lowest-income parts of the country. Results from this Dutch-funded work have been promising, and benefits have included better access to education for both adults and children.

In Niger, FAO is helping devise a national strategy for the use of new and renewable energy sources, including solar, biomass, wind and hydro-electric energy. Like all of FAO's rural energy work, it will seek to conserve resources while increasing rural incomes.

FAO will continue to work with the UN Task Force towards a UN-wide approach to energy that will tap the rich vein of interdisciplinary expertise within the UN system.

28 August 2001

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