Investment and policies must support cheap, clean energy technologies to cut both poverty and climate change, say Reid Detchon and Richenda Van Leeuwen.

More than one-third of people in the world start life without access to electricity and clean fuels for cooking, heating and lighting1. United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon was one of them, studying at night by a dim, smoky oil lamp as a boy in 1950s post-war Korea. He now sees energy as “the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability”.

In 2011, Ban launched the UN initiative Sustainable Energy for All. It sets out three objectives for 2030: universal access to modern energy services; doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix.

The initiative gained traction quickly among member states and international and regional banks because it combines global emissions-reduction and development goals. Clean energy will improve the lives of the world’s poor and is crucial to keeping the rise in average global temperatures to within 2 °C of pre-industrial levels — the goal agreed by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2010.

Yet the pace of progress towards clean energy for all has failed to match the urgency of addressing climate change and global poverty. Renewable energy has become economically competitive with conventional fuels only in about the past five years, and reaching dispersed rural populations poses logistical challenges. If policies remain unchanged, the UN objectives will not be met.

Market-led approaches are suited to roll- ing out clean-energy technologies across the developing world, if affordable financing is made available and supported by local and national policies. To achieve universal energy access, investment capital must be matched to a pipeline of viable energy projects and enterprises...

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