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Climate Change Conference Focuses on Energy for Poor Nations

Brian Dames, Chief Executive of South Africa's public utility ESKOM, speaks at a forum on sustainable development.
Brian Dames, Chief Executive of South Africa's public utility ESKOM, speaks at a forum on sustainable development.
Greg Flakus

As the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Cancun, Mexico wraps up its final day, discussions continue over some crucial issues such as the need to simultaneously reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and provide the world with more energy.  While no one expects major progress towards a comprehensive binding treaty, Mexican officials say they do see progress in some areas and that the conference is providing an opportunity for many governments and environmental organizations to share ideas and forge agreements of their own.

While delegates from over 190 nations meet under tight security at a nearby hotel, representatives of non-governmental organizations, universities, regional groups and other entities come together at a large conference hall to move ahead with their own agendas.  One focal point discussed here over the past two weeks involves how industrialized nations can help developing countries not only adapt to climate change, but gain access to more energy in order to grow their economies.

Scientists from richer nations say increased emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels like coal and petroleum products are causing the earth to warm.  But how can poor nations reduce emissions when the only way out of poverty is to increase energy use?

Speaking in a forum on sustainable development, Brian Dames, Chief Executive of South Africa's public utility ESKOM, noted that his continent lags far behind in access to electrical power.

"If you look at the continent at night from a satellite it is truly the dark continent and therein lies the challenge that we have," said Dames.

Dames notes that energy access in sub-Saharan Africa is about 25 percent versus 90 percent in east Asia, yet Africans pay nearly double the price for energy. He and other development experts say electrical energy is the key to fighting poverty in poor nations.

The United Nations has addressed this need through its Global Campaign for Universal Energy Access, which has an emphasis on the use of clean energy. Technologies already available may help poor regions operate local electrical grids and utilize waste products in their own vicinity for fuel.

Helge Marie Norheim, a vice president of Norway's state-owned oil company Statoil, says her company is working on projects in Africa to use biofuels to supplement energy from other sources.

"Energy companies like Statoil have the technology, competence and financial capability to continue to provide for energy security, while, at the same time, addressing the dual challenge of climate change," said Norheim.

Kandeh Yumkella, Director General of the U.N. Industrial Development Organization and a citizen of Sierra Leone, says expanding electrical power resources in Africa would add minimal amounts of greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere. But, he says, his organization favors using clean energy.

"The knowledge for solar, wind, hydro, biofuel mass - these are known.  So we can even use new renewable technologies that are existing today and their contributions to emissions will be negligible," said Yumkella.

Much of the talk at this conference has been about transferring wealth from richer nations to poorer ones to help them both mitigate their emissions and adapt to the changes that global warming will produce. To have better energy systems, Yumkella says developing nations need not only money, but technical assistance.

"There is a lot of need for external assistance from the United States, from Europe, and others, for support," added Yumkella.  "Also, there are lots of possibilities for South-South cooperation. China and India, they have developed indigenous technologies to use biomass, to use animal waste, to be able to provide basic energy services for the poor."

The climate conference is winding down, but many of the projects discussed here are only getting started. Participants in the many forums that have taken place here say they are committed to doing their part to save the planet and their own communities, regardless of what does or does not happen on a larger scale.

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