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The world is in a conundrum. To remain habitable its atmosphere should not be filled with more CO2. This could be achieved by using solar energy, and in many projections solar energy will indeed be a major future energy source. But the problem is that that future is too far away to achieve the needed CO2 reduction in time.

The world came together last week in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to talk about financing its development. The event was the first of the three crucial UN meetings planned for year that are to be transformative for the future of the world. The second is on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals – SDGs – in September in New York and the third and final on a global Climate Treaty or Agreement, COP21, in Paris in December.

Will the world be able to decide on a future that is viable, marrying development and sustainability? Is solar energy recognised as a major part of the solution and is solar energy advocating itself as such? It was with these questions setting the stage that the Financing for Development conference started.

The focus of the conference was on finance, on finding ways and means to turn billions of dollars for development into trillions, as one of its side events organised by the World Bank was called. Such are the dimensions of the capital required for the SDGs – US$90 trillion dollars for the coming 15 years in infrastructure alone, while remaining under the 2 degree Celsius global warming scenario, according to a high-level report written for the conference.

There was a focus on infrastructure, health, sustainable agriculture and nutrition – sustainability as the underlying requirement, with the added difficulty for ministers of finance and financial experts of figuring in climate change effects.

Eminent economist Joseph Stiglitz said plenty of capital was available globally, but because of the short-term focus of the financial markets that money was not finding its way to projects that could benefit from it. So the problem is not a lack of money, but a lack of coordination. The word most often heard during the first day of the conference was “together”. In the further days this evolved to “partnership”.

Time for action

With every solution in financing, and especially long-term financing, one has to ask now what state the earth and the atmosphere will be in by that future point in time. This makes all investments doubly difficult, particularly in a financial system with a worldwide investment and infrastructure pattern grounded in fossil fuels.

One feasible solution that could bring a shift quickly is to fundamentally accelerate the deployment of solar energy worldwide – think a 100-fold increase in seven years.

This sense of urgency however was mostly not palpable at the conference, taking place in well air-conditioned hotels in a city that is both full of modern infrastructure and where walking the streets one encounters poverty at every step.

One voice speaking about the troubled future of the earth was economist Professor Jeffrey Sachs, who stated that the problem of climate change is so immense that it requires governments to be in problem-solving mode, not in a zero-sum negotiating game as they are now. Sketching disasters ahead, especially the melting of the ice structures supporting Arctic and Antarctic ice-fields conjuring up quickly rising sea levels and degree-5 typhoons, Sachs made the enormity of what faces humanity clearly felt.

UN secretary general Ban Ki Moon, who addressed several events of the conference, reminding the participants that there is only one planet, stated in his synthesis report that “all financing streams need to be optimised towards sustainable development and coordinated for the greatest impact”.

On the morning of Thursday 16 July, the UN was able to announce a positive outcome to the conference, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda. This set out various measures to overhaul international finance practices, including a step made towards international cooperation on tackling tax evasion. The disappearance of some US$250 billion annually from developing countries to tax havens far outweighs all combined Official Development Assistance of US$130 billion dollars annually, making it a priority to be addressed by all and not just OECD countries.

Most attention for solar energy was in the context of Africa, with representatives of President Obama’s Power Africa initiative signing memoranda of understanding with the European Union and Sweden in the order of US$2.8 billion and US$1 billion respectively to support solar energy in Africa over the next five and 10 years.

Efforts are underway to coordinate the multiplicity of initiatives for powering Africa through solar and other forms of low-carbon energy, with involvement of the African Union, SE4All and the EU.

Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan has called for a strong African voice in promoting the opportunities for a “triple win” in energy, climate action and poverty reduction, and setting the tempo for a scaling up of low-carbon energy investment, not just on the continent but globally.

The road to COP21

So was the conference a success in the context of the COP21 talks in Paris later this year? From the UN and governments’ viewpoint of continuity and of building and developing momentum, yes. However from the viewpoint of nature and climate change not nearly enough has taken place; before the event, UNEP director Achim Steiner called for a “loud revolution” to occur at the conference, while OECD secretary general Angel Gurría was very vociferous on the disastrous path the world is on as it continues to build new coal-fired plants and fails to retreat quickly enough from fossil fuel. But signs of a commitment to any radical solutions were not evident.

There is much talk about the spectacular growth and falling price of renewable energy, particularly solar. During a side event at last week’s conference, the billionaire green advocate Tom Steyer pointed out that the price for solar has now come below 4 cents per kWh and will continue to fall. But this has not yet achieved widespread public recognition, and certainly there was little evidence last week that the potentially transformative power of solar deployed at a much larger scale than is currently the case has been recognised at a high level.

As the world gears up for the crucially import COP21 talks later this year, there is a real need for some bold thinking to feature in the negotiations. Given the growing recognition of solar as a possible game-changer one clear statement of intent by world leaders would be a pledge to secure a 100-fold increase in solar deployment by 2022-23. That would give negotiators something concrete to agree on and would be a big step forward in putting the world on a more sustainable path.

Last week’s Addis Ababa conference showed the world is still capable of coordinated action. There is still time for that spirit of cooperation to become a feature of COP21 and solar could prove to be the unifying factor.

Solar's potential saw only limited recognition during last week's UN development finance summit in Addis Ababa. Image: SolarWorld.