Turning the Lights On: Energy In Asia

Turn on a light. Heat up the stove. Plug in your computer.

Those of us who are fortunate enough to have access to reliable energy never question where that energy comes from or take the time to calculate how much we consume. We just assume it will always be there when we need it. But for the 1.1 billion people (about 18% of the world population) living without energy and the other 2.9 billion who have to use wood or other polluting fuels for cooking and heating, having this access to reliable energy is a life or death situation. This problem has been placed on the global forefront also driven by the desperate need to reduce carbon emissions. Both the World Bank and United Nations have dedicated initiatives to addressing both the problem of lack of access and environmental impact. This post will focus solely on initiatives that are impacting Asia.

A Deeper Dive to the Problem in Asia

According to the United Nations, of the 4.43 billion people living in the Asia-Pacific region, about “615 million do not have access to electricity while another 1.8 billion have no access to clean cooking.” With such a large portion of energy poverty concentrated in this region it has become a major focus for change initiatives. But Asia has another problem: pollution. As the region boomed starting in the 1990s, so did its carbon emission. For example, between 1990 and 2010 Southeast Asia’s carbon emissions rose 227%. The graph below from World Bank data shows the level of emissions in different global regions and shows how much of a problem pollution is in Asia. Besides wanting to lower emissions and decrease energy poverty, there are other reasons for wanting to increase the amount of renewable energy in Asia. The main reason being to no longer having dependence on foreign countries for energy fuel sources.

energy in asia

The Two Main Initiatives

World Bank’s Asia Sustainable and Alternative Energy Program

Backed by the World Bank, the Asia Sustainable and Alternative Energy Program (ASTAE) was founded in 1992 by a global partnership. The ASTAE focuses on making changes in two different regions: the East Asia Pacific and South Asia. It has three main “pillars” that it focuses on: renewable energy, energy efficiency, and access to energy. The third pillar, access to energy, has joined together nicely with the objectives of another entity that will be discussed in the next section – the United Nation’s Sustainable Energy For All initiative. The ASTAE uses six metrics to assess its impact of its different projects, one of which is the “level of avoided greenhouse gas emissions.” Essentially, its mission to solve the main problems impacting Asia: the high level of emissions and the large number of people without access to energy. This program is very regionally focused and determined to make an impact.

Sustainable Energy For All

The United Nations launched Sustainable Energy For All (SE4ALL) in 2011 with the goal to have “three interlinked objectives” achieved by 2030. Similar to the ASTAE, these focus on three main goals: “1) ensure universal access to modern energy services, 2) Double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency and 3) Double the share of renewable the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix.” It is easy to tell how SE4ALL and ASTAE have similar focuses and outcomes. The biggest difference between the two is that SE4ALL is much more global in scale, with a lot more stakeholders and members. But the SE4ALL does have an Asia hub that focuses on major change in that region. Armed with its “Global Tracking Framework”, which allows SE4ALL to assess using different indicators, the organization is able to track the success of its objectives. One of the biggest findings about Asia, coming from its “Progress Toward Sustainable Energy: Global Tracking Framework 2015” report, the SE4ALL found that Asian countries between 2010-2012 accounted for “60 percent of the global progress and clean energy objectives”, which was much higher than what the region’s share should have been. While it is clear progress is being made in Asia and around the world the question still remains if that progress is sustainable and will be enough to solve the climate change crisis.

The “Smoggy” Path to a “Clear” Solution

While all of these initiatives are definitely elevating some of the problems and encouraging businesses throughout Asia to change their practices and fuel sources, the question remains: is it enough to clear the smog? According to Statista, in the graph shown below, China alone still emits 28.03% of the world’s carbon emissions, mostly driven by the usage of coal, which is one of the dirtiest forms of fuel.

Percentage of Global Emissions in 2014

energy in asia

But as renewable energy becomes more economical and thus more competitive with traditional, cheaper sources of energy, there could be big changes on the horizon. According to Bloomberg, “renewable energy may reap as much as two-thirds of the $7.7 trillion in investment”, or about $5.1 trillion, forecasted for new power plants by 2030, which happens to be the same year SE4ALL’s plan ends as well. With the hope that countries will be driven now by economics, security, and environmental impact, there could be a major change in the industry. Many see Asia continuing to leave the pack, as Bloomberg predicts that Asia will spend about $2.5 trillion of the $5.1 trillion predicted to be spent on renewables. While it is still unclear what the future will bring, there is hope that positive change will take place, the pollution will lessen, and lights will turn on in Asia and across the world.

Grace Cammack
MBA candidate 2016, Tulane University
gcammack@tulane.edu