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COVID-19 slows progress towards universal energy access


A hut in Mozambique with a solar panel Photo: Adobe Stock
A hut in Mozambique with a solar panel – Africa remains the least electrified region in the world, with 568mn people without electricity access

Photo: Adobe Stock

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a key factor in slowing progress towards universal energy access, according to a new report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

Globally, 733mn people still have no access to electricity and 2.4bn people still cook using fuels detrimental to their health and the environment. At the current rate of progress, 670mn people will remain without electricity by 2030 – 10mn more than projected last year.


The 2022 edition of Tracking SDG 7: The energy progress report shows that the impacts of the pandemic, including lockdowns, disruptions to global supply chains and diversion of fiscal resources to keep food and fuel prices affordable, have affected the pace of progress towards the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 7) of ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy by 2030.


Advances have been impeded particularly in the most vulnerable countries and those already lagging in energy access. Nearly 90mn people in Asia and Africa who had previously gained access to electricity can no longer afford to pay for their basic energy needs.


The impacts of the COVID-19 crisis on energy have been compounded in the last few months by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has led to uncertainty in global oil and gas markets and has sent energy prices soaring.


Africa remains the least electrified region in the world, according to the report, with 568mn people without electricity access. Sub-Saharan Africa’s share of the global population without electricity jumped to 77% in 2020 from 71% in 2018, whereas most other regions saw declines in their share of the access deficits. While 70mn people globally gained access to clean cooking fuels and technologies, this progress was not enough to keep pace with population growth, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa.


‘International public financing for renewable energy needs to accelerate, especially in the poorest, most vulnerable countries. We have failed to support those most in need. With only eight years left to achieve universal access to affordable and sustainable energy, we need radical actions to accelerate the increase of international public financial flows and distribute them in a more equitable manner, so 733mn people who are currently left behind can enjoy the benefits of clean energy access,’ says Francesco La Camera, Director-General IRENA.


The report finds that despite continued disruptions in economic activity and supply chains, renewable energy was the only energy source to grow through the pandemic. However, these positive global and regional trends in renewable energy have left behind many countries most in need of electricity. This was aggravated by a decrease in international financial flows for the second year in a row, falling to $10.9bn in 2019.


In September 2021, the UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy brought together governments and stakeholders to accelerate action to achieve a sustainable energy future that leaves no one behind. In this context, the SDG 7 custodian agencies, the International Energy Agency, IRENA, the United Nations Statistics Division, the World Bank and the World Health Organization, as they launched the report, urged the international community and policymakers to safeguard gains towards SDG 7; to remain committed to continued action towards affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all; and to maintain a strategic focus on countries needing the most support.