Wind turbines at Kouga Wind Farm at Oyster Bay in the Eastern Cape. File picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Wind turbines at Kouga Wind Farm at Oyster Bay in the Eastern Cape. File picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Energy access is a basic requirement to achieve a decent standard of living and for nearly all productive economic activity. Without it you can’t charge a mobile phone, use the internet or store food or the coronavirus vaccine in a fridge.

Electricity is something many of us take for granted. Yet despite improvements over the past 20 years more than 800-million people worldwide still have no access to electricity, with more than eight in 10 of them living in countries affected by conflict and instability — so-called “fragile states”.

Many war-torn areas are stuck in a vicious cycle: conflict and a lack of access to energy lead to poverty and low economic growth; meanwhile, instability and uncertain returns deter the private sector from investing in energy infrastructure. Covid-19 and the increasingly evident effects of climate change are making a bad situation worse, with the World Bank estimating that up to 124-million more people were pushed into extreme poverty in 2020.

And yet, opportunity is staring us in the face. New green technologies are making it cheaper than ever to power homes, schools and businesses in fragile contexts, many of which have abundant sources of renewable energy waiting to be tapped. We must act now to ensure everyone has access to energy and break the cycle of conflict, poverty and climate change.

Along with other leaders from politics, business and academia, in several countries, today we are launching a new call to action to boost investment in and access to clean energy in fragile contexts. The initiative is led by the Council on State Fragility and the G7+ group of countries affected by conflict and fragility.

We know there are myriad competing priorities for money and political attention at the moment, but we truly believe this could be transformative if we act quickly. And the benefits would be felt beyond the countries where investment is made, because instability spills over borders and affects us all.

We’re calling for investment in things such as solar minigrids, which are a particularly effective way to supply energy to a collection of households or businesses in the hot climates of the Middle East or Africa, where fragility often occurs. Thanks to technological advances, residential solar minigrids cost up to 79% less in 2019 than they did in 2010, and many forms of renewable energy now outcompete fossil fuels on price.

We also know that big oil and gas plants just aren’t suitable in fragile contexts. Large-scale, centralised energy systems are prime targets for attack during violent conflict. Security costs, alongside the risk of political instability leading to significant delays and cancellations, can make these sorts of projects unworkable.

The climate crisis is already being felt acutely in many of the poorest parts of the world. Droughts deprive farmers of a decent harvest, and rising sea levels and flooding push people off their land, often worsening the underlying drivers of instability. We must end our dependence on high-carbon energy to prevent global temperatures rising to catastrophic levels.

So, locally available, renewable sources can provide a triple-win: they are affordable; help diversify the energy supply; and mitigate risk; and are good for the planet.

We are calling for a rapid increase in funding for energy access, as well as a wholesale change of approach. To make this happen, donor countries must make clean energy in fragile states a priority, and increase the amount they give in aid.

Private energy companies should throw their financial resources and expertise behind clean energy investments, and multilateral institutions should support them by providing tools and insurance to help manage risk. Specialist development finance institutions should increase their investments in pioneering clean energy projects, making them more attractive to mainstream private investors such as pension funds.

And, of course, governments of fragile states have a vital role to play. They need to build domestic environments that stimulate investment in clean energy, including by committing to transparency and the rule of law. Where needed, multilateral institutions and donors should provide governments with technical support for energy planning and project implementation.

The UK government, as the chair of both the G7 and the UN  climate change conference (Cop26) in 2021, can help bring all of these actors together to deliver substantial progress. With concerted, co-ordinated action we can tackle poverty and climate change — two of the greatest challenges facing the world today — and help fragile states rebuild from the devastating effect of the pandemic.

• Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is former Liberian president and David Cameron former British prime minister. They are two of the co-chairs of the Council of State Fragility.

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