Latin America's sustainable energy future can start at the Rio+20 Earth Summit

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Environment ministers from 31 Latin American and Caribbean countries meeting in Quito, Ecuador highlighted the importance of renewing high-level political will on sustainable development at the Rio+20 Earth Summit this June. Latin America is in a position to start the transition toward a cleaner, more equitable and sustainable future; but we need governments and other key actors to identify the specific commitments they will make to ensure this future becomes a reality. One obvious place to start is by ramping up renewable energy generation and boosting energy efficiency, especially by phasing out inefficient light bulbs. Encouragingly, some countries in the region are already moving forward on these issues. At Rio+20 we want to hear about their commitments in these areas and plans for scaling up efforts. But we also want to be sure such commitments can be tracked and systems of accountability are in place.

The UN recently launched a global initiative to bring sustainable energy to all, and indeed one of Latin America’s key sustainable development goals should be ensuring access to clean and efficient energy for everyone in the region. This will mean meeting the unmet energy needs of the 31 million people across the region that still don’t have access to electricity, enabling them to study, work and finally pull ahead. But it also requires moving toward cleaner and more efficient ways of generating and using all energy.

The good news is that various countries in the region are already working to harness renewable power and increase energy efficiency. Chile’s Senate recently approved a bill calling for 20% of all electricity to come from the nation’s abundant nonconventional renewable sources, including geothermal, wind and solar. President Piñera’s government must now also move forward with other smart energy policies that make it easier for these technologies to connect to the energy grid. It’s also encouraging that many countries have expressed support for phasing out wasteful lighting technologies and improving efficiency. Mexico now has new efficiency standards and Argentina, Ecuador and Cuba have undertaken efforts to phase out inefficient bulbs. 

Switching to efficient lighting is just

one of the many opportunities for boosting efficiency and it has clear advantages for the region. Inefficient incandescent bulbs waste up to 90 percent of the energy they use as pure heat. Not phasing out these bulbs squanders away energy resources and funds better used elsewhere. By simply switching from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs Latin America and the Caribbean could reduce about 4 percent of overall electricity consumption, saving more than 4 billion dollars per year in lower energy costs. In the process they’d also cut greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to taking 4 million cars off the roads. The transition to more efficient lighting would also mean that eight 500 MW plants could be closed or avoided. In a region where controversial energy projects –like Chile’s massive HidroAysén hydroelectric scheme– all too often lead to civil unrest and sometimes even to violence, as was recently the case in Panama, governments simply cannot afford to miss an opportunity to improve  energy security through improved energy efficiency. 

So what can countries do between now and Rio+20, and beyond, to create a sustainable energy future?  For starters, it's important to minimize obstacles to lighting efficiency. The region – or key groups of countries– should work together to harmonize minimum efficiency and quality standards that are technology neutral. These standards should reduce the energy use of new bulbs by at least 65 percent. It will also be important to continue to educate the public about efficient light bulbs to dispel false perceptions about risks and costs. And finally, countries will need to develop incentive mechanisms to help the transition to efficient lighting. But it’s not just governments who need to act on efficiency. The private sector can take a lead role in improving efficiency in their supply chains and operations and help make investments in public-private partnerships that move energy efficient products and services forward. 

There’s been a broad diversity of views on sustainable development and the green economy coming out from Latin America as the region prepares for Rio+20. But one thing that should no longer be up for debate is that greater environmental and social sustainability requires a clean energy transition. This will only happen once countries and industries start making serious commitments to sustainable renewables and energy efficiency. These commitments must be tracked and a system for accountability must be put in place to make sure the needed actions and policies are implemented. That’s why NRDC is calling for one key outcome from Rio+20 to be a web-based global registry that uses the most advanced information technology to compile, track and help scale up sustainability commitments.   

Brazil – and by extension the rest of Latin America – will be at the center of the world stage this June during Rio+20. With its abundant renewable energy resources and significant room for efficiency improvements, the region has the potential to be a global pioneer on sustainable energy. We now need its governments, industries and citizens to show the leadership and commitment needed to turn this potential into reality.