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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

The energy transition is becoming more unjust


Cartoon depicting family at home reading under a light Photo: World Bank
Electricity utilities around the world will need to serve millions of new customers as access to electricity improves

Photo: World Bank

The world remains off course to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy by 2030 (UN Sustainable Development Goal SDG7), according to a new report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO).


The report confirms that the number of people without access to electricity increased for the first time in over a decade, as population grew – mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa – at a higher rate than that of new electricity connections, leaving 685 million people without electricity in 2022, 10 million more than in 2021. Causes attributed to this by the report’s authors include the global energy crisis, inflation, growing debt distress in many low-income countries and increased geopolitical tensions.


Meanwhile, 2.1 billion people still live without access to clean cooking fuels and technologies, with the number remaining largely flat last year. They are mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. This carries with it huge implications for health, gender equality and the environment (as households spend up to 40 hours a week gathering firewood and cooking). The air pollution that those fires cause contributes to 3.2 million premature deaths each year, the authors observe.


Under current policies, by 2030 there are still 660 million people lacking electricity access and around 1.8 billion without access to clean cooking technologies and fuels.


The news is not all bad, however. The authors report promising trends in the rollout of decentralised energy solutions, largely based on renewable energy, are helping accelerate progress in access to energy, particularly in rural areas where eight in 10 people without access live today. Also, renewable energy has seen robust growth over the past two years, and energy efficiency improvements are gradually improving after a drop-off during the pandemic (albeit still not enough to meet the SDG 7 target and too heavily concentrated in certain countries, which are mainly developed).  


International public financial flows in support of clean energy in developing countries rebounded in 2022, to $15.4bn, a 25% increase over 2021. However, it is still around half of the 2016 peak of $28.5bn.


Fatih Birol, Executive Director, IEA, says: ‘To achieve Sustainable Development Goal 7, we will need much more investment in emerging and developing economies to expand access to electricity and to clean cooking technologies and fuels. Today, only a fraction of total energy investment is going to the countries where the problems of electricity access and clean cooking are critical, not least in Sub-Saharan Africa.’


Meanwhile, a second report from the World Bank details the poor state of electricity utilities in many countries, whose day-to-day difficulties put off potential future investment essential for development.


The report, The Critical Link: Empowering Utilities for the Energy Transition, examines the performance of over 180 utilities in more than 90 countries. It reveals that only 40% of utilities are able to cover their operating and debt service costs. Low-income and lower-middle-income countries face the most acute challenges as high costs, low tariffs, transmission and distribution losses, inefficient payment collection and poor planning perpetuate cycles of underperformance, burdening government budgets while leaving many consumers without reliable power.


These financial and operational hurdles also act as deterrents to investors, preventing many utilities from raising private capital at affordable rates and holding back critical investments in grid modernisation and upgrades, the authors report. Investment is crucial to offset the high cost of the transition, they add, given the scarcity of public funding.


Guangzhe Chen, World Bank Vice President for Infrastructure, says: ‘Policymakers, regulators and development financiers need to step up to empower utilities through robust policies and more long-term financing to deliver on the promise of clean and accessible energy for all.’ 




Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7)   

The UN has defined five targets and six indicators (metrics) in SDG7 for the world to track whether these targets are being achieved in the move towards a just energy transition. 

Basically, there are three core targets in SDG7:

  • To ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy services (ie with access for all to electricity for cooking, heating and lighting).
  • To increase substantially the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.
  • To double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency.