Delivering a Just and Equitable Energy Transition

This Argument appears in vol. 75, no. 1, "Insecurities: The 75th Anniversary Issue, 1947-2022" (Fall/Winter 2022).

By Damilola Ogunbiyi


The clean energy transition is at the heart of addressing numerous challenges: climate risks and vulnerabilities; rising prices of fuel, food, and commodities; and achieving sustainable development for all. But the global response not only continues to fall far short of what is needed, it also perpetuates an unjust and stark divide in the policy mindset of how services should be accessed and delivered globally. If we truly want to get to a net-zero future where no one is left behind, there must be a paradigm shift in the way we think about the energy transition. We cannot focus only on decarbonization of existing systems alone; we must think about how people access and consume energy, especially in regions where energy infrastructure does not adequately meet demand, particularly in Africa and Asia. This is critical to both climate action and development.

Energy for Climate and Development

Earlier this year, a report on the progress toward achieving Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7, access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all by 2030, showing that the world is still falling short.[1] Today, there are 733 million people without access to electricity. And 2.4 billion people live without clean cooking solutions. The latest Chilling Prospects report[2] also shows there are about 1 billion people who lack access to sustainable cooling solutions. This has numerous negative implications on health, education, gender equality, economic opportunity, and overall prosperity.

Energy is an essential part of our everyday lives and activities. From a climate perspective, the lack of access to electricity for small businesses forces a reliance on diesel-powered generators, which globally produce emissions equivalent to 1,000 coal-fired power stations. Lack of clean cooking solutions, which impacts nearly one-third of the world’s population, contributes to deforestation and results in household air pollution that prematurely kills 3.2 million people a year, a majority of whom are women and children. In a warming world, access to cooling is no longer a luxury, but rather an issue of equity that underpins the ability of people to protect themselves during heatwaves, keep food fresh and nutritious, and cool much-needed medicines and vaccines. Addressing all of these energy poverty issues—as well as achieving SDG 7—must happen on the road to achieving net zero by 2050.

The UN Secretary-General’s Global Roadmap[3] issued in September 2021 spotlights this urgency by calling for the achievement of energy access while contributing to net-zero emissions by 2050. The roadmap, a major outcome of the UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy (HLDE), sets an aggressive timeline to ensure 500 million people are connected to electricity by 2025 and one billion gain access to clean cooking. This call is also a strong reminder that energy is a critical enabler for the achievement of other SDGs, more ambitious climate action, and a just and equitable clean energy future.

Yet, while billions suffer the consequences of energy poverty, we are also faced with the impacts of current energy generation, with fossil fuels representing 80% of the total energy supply. Energy accounts for over two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions, contributing significantly to the climate crisis. Several reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others point to our bleak future if we remain in this businessas-usual trajectory. And indeed, we are already experiencing firsthand what this means if we do not urgently address these issues. We are far off track in meeting our net-zero ambition.

More critically, the African continent which is home to nearly one-fifth of the world’s population and accounts for less than 3 percent of the world’s energy-related carbon dioxide emissions to date is facing more severe impacts of climate change than most other parts of the world. These disproportionate impacts of climate change include water stress, reduced food production, increased frequency of extreme weather events, and lower economic growth. Excluding South Africa, the remaining 1 billion people in Sub-Saharan Africa are serviced by a power generating capacity of just 81 gigawatts (GW) but have contributed less than 1 percent of cumulative CO2 emissions. By comparison, the United States has an installed capacity of 1,200 GW to power a population of 331 million people, while the UK has 76 GW of installed capacity for its 67 million people. Therefore, per capita energy capacity in the UK is almost fifteen times that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite this, initial signs of fuel shortages for winter resulted in further backsliding of commitments by countries like the UK, Germany, and beyond, raising valid concerns about energy management, climate justice, and a growing chasm between the actions of developed countries and their expectations for developing countries.

In addition, the Ukraine crisis has resulted in increases in prices of food, energy, and other commodities, straining already struggling developing economies. According to the International Energy Agency’s Africa Energy Outlook 2022,[4] the impact of the war on the continent’s energy systems has reversed positive trends towards improved access to modern energy, with 25 million more people in Africa living without electricity today compared to pre-pandemic times.

The third brief[5] from the United Nations Global Crisis Response Group, focused on energy, highlights an imminent fear that these rising costs of energy could price out many developing countries from energy markets. Vulnerable communities in these countries would be the most impacted, while already facing the brunt of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis and setbacks in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. This would result in energy access only for countries that are able to pay high prices. Without policies that balance urgency and sustainability in line with the Paris Agreement, developing countries would be forced on a high-emissions and expensive energy pathway.

It is clear that the climate crisis and the energy crisis are closely linked and require urgent action. They must also be tackled together, while also factoring in a third component—development. We cannot achieve our net-zero ambition unless we bring people and their aspirations along.

People Must Be at the Heart of the Energy Transition

Our clean energy future will not be a reality unless it is also just, inclusive, and equitable. We must put people at the heart of the energy transition. We must bring electricity and clean cooking solutions to billions of people who currently live without, so that they can have access to the same economic and social opportunities as all of us who have abundant energy. The populations that are currently without are hit the hardest by the absence of energy. The Africa Energy Outlook 2022 states that achieving SDG 7 by 2030 would mean connecting 90 million people per year to electricity, triple the rate of recent years. It would also mean shifting 130 million people away from dirty cooking fuels each year until 2030 to achieve universal access to clean cooking fuels.

In the last year or so, we have seen some progress that has elevated energy access and development into climate conversations at the global, regional, and country levels. Some examples follow.

Global commitments

The energy access element of the energy transition must be linked with the emission reduction aspect. For too long, we have considered these to be parallel yet separate tracks. However, pathways to reaching net-zero by 2050 must first include ending energy poverty by 2030. If energy access issues are left unaddressed, we will continue to see growing energy demand being addressed with high-polluting and deforesting fuels such as diesel, kerosene, and firewood. Therefore, efforts aimed to advance climate goals must first and foremost create carbon space for growing economies that have historically made negligible contributions to global emissions and have an obligation to their people to provide access to energy for electricity, cooking, and productive uses. Developing countries by and large are home to the world’s youngest and fastest growing populations. The scale and quality of energy services must increase significantly to create jobs and enable climate-smart industrialization.

In 2021, and for the first time in 40 years, there was a summit-level dialogue on energy during the UN General Assembly: the HLDE. At this summit, new multi-billion-dollar commitments in the form of Energy Compacts were made by a range of stakeholders to accelerate the use of renewable energy, improvements in energy efficiency, as well as access to electricity and clean cooking technologies. These commitments amounted to more than USD 600 billion in new finance and investment by governments and the private sector.

Notably, several global players came together to form coalitions to work on specific commitments. The 24/7 Carbon-Free Energy Compact is one such example of public and private sector players coming together and committing to ensure that every kilowatt-hour of electricity consumption is met with cost-effective carbon-free energy—every hour, every day, everywhere.

A just transition to clean energy and an accelerated phasing-out of coal was at the heart of the COP26 Presidency, aligning with the goals of the Paris Agreement. While the Glasgow Climate Pact was disappointing to many, we saw several ambitious government and private sector commitments towards accelerating climate action and just transitions. This ambition ranged from banks and financial institutions like HSBC, Fidelity International, and Ethos committing to end funding of unabated coal, as well as countries such as China, Japan, and South Korea committing to end overseas coal financing, signaling the end of most public, international financing for coal power.

For the first time, COP26 had a dedicated SDG 7 pavilion featuring events and engagements designed to bring new attention to global leaders that achieving modern, universal, and sustainable energy for all is a critical step on the road to net-zero by 2050.

Regional cooperation

Bold and urgent action is needed to end energy poverty and secure climate justice for billions of people around the world, especially those in developing countries who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. A just and equitable energy transition is not a one-size-fits-all prescription, but rather is an understanding that economies at differing stages of development will require different solutions to grow their economies as well as develop along a low-carbon pathway.

Governments now have a much more nuanced understanding of what this means and the part that each country needs to play. At the Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) Global Forum in Kigali in 2022, Ministers from Africa met to begin defining what a just and equitable energy transition would mean for the region. The Kigali Communique[6] outlined agreed-upon transformative actions towards achieving SDG 7. This discussion carried forward later in 2022, at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and into COP27 in Egypt. Similarly, representatives from the Asia-Pacific region have met and discussed the need for scaled-up finance and collaboration towards achieving a clean energy transition.

National ambition

Leading into COP26 in 2021, the Energy Transition Council (ETC), an initiative launched by the UK COP Presidency, worked with countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Vietnam, Morocco, Indonesia, and others to bring governments, donor countries, and development finance institutions together to make clean energy transitions more affordable and attractive.

At COP26, several emerging economies made announcements committing to move from coal to clean power, including India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Africa. In addition, India, Thailand, Nepal, Nigeria, and Vietnam made net-zero pledges.

For example, through the ETC process, SEforALL partnered with the Federal Government of Nigeria to develop an Energy Transition Plan[7] for the country backed by comprehensive and robust data and analysis to outline the country’s unique energy transition pathway. This resulted in an announcement by Nigeria’s President Buhari at COP26 of the country’s commitment to achieve net-zero by 2060 that includes delivering universal energy access to its population by 2030. The plan shows, however, the scale of the challenge. For Nigeria alone, achieving net-zero by 2060 would cost USD 410 billion above business-as-usual spending across the economy.

Adequate investment is critical

There is currently a dramatic mismatch in energy investments. While representing just 15 percent of the world’s population, high income countries received 40 percent of global energy investment in 2018. Conversely, developing countries with 40 percent of the world’s population received just 15 percent of global energy investment. Energy consumption in developing countries has doubled in the last 15 years and is expected to grow another 30 percent in the next fifteen years. Making capital available to fulfill the growing clean-energy demand in these regions of the world is central to reaching the goals of the Paris Agreement.

All these efforts require global support for clean energy systems that will enable local economic development and contribute to the world’s net-zero goals. That’s where the international community, especially the private sector, plays a critical role. The world needs massive scale-up of investment for the clean energy transition: According to the International Energy Agency, it would take over USD 190 billion each year from 2026 to 2030, with about two-thirds going to clean energy for Africa alone, for the continent to achieve its climate and energy goals.

While high-emitting, energy-abundant countries must invest heavily into greening their economies, we must also ensure that adequate investments flow to low-emitting, energy-poor countries to grow their economies, deliver on the aspirations of their populations, and achieve SDG 7.

We are at a pivotal moment in this decade of action. We have to collaborate if we want to succeed. As we look ahead to COP28 later this year, we’re building on the success of the HLDE, COP26, COP27, and the SEforALL Global Forum. Collaboration must result in bold new commitments from governments, financial institutions, the private sector, and other stakeholders for actions that will accelerate progress toward achieving our net-zero and energy access goals.


Three words must guide global climate and energy discussions and negotiations moving forward.


While climate change presents an existential threat to the world, each country’s transition pathway will, by necessity, be different. We are all together in our fight towards a more resilient and sustainable future but are starting from very different baselines. In the case of developing countries, the obligation towards climate and energy action must not hamper action on their development priorities and obligations to their populace. International donors and financiers should avoid generalized standards and policies that mask important discrepancies in needs, viable solutions, and cost, instead focusing on delivering the investment commitments they have already made to energy projects across the Global South.


Energy is the largest source of carbon emissions and thus its generation sources and consumption need to undergo a rapid transition. However, what is often disregarded is the critical role energy plays in catalyzing economic development and supporting people’s health and livelihoods. As the world remains offtrack to reach universal access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030, many millions of people have been robbed of the chance to live dignified and healthy lives. As the world works together to mobilize climate action, it would be better placed to accelerate the pace of adoption of cleaner fuels.


COVID-19 has shown that our response to global crises must be one that bridges regional divides in order for global order to be restored. However, we continue to act in ways that instead reinforce and further deepen regional divides. Africa, for instance, is a region full of promise and a growing economic powerhouse, yet the adverse effect of the pandemic and now the war in Ukraine have reversed progress on many fronts, including the delivery of sufficient, reliable, and affordable energy. The principle of leaving no one behind must translate into action by mobilizing international public and private capital that flows into countries that need it the most. Efforts aimed at delivering climate action while leaving no one behind must facilitate the flow of capital for renewables.

While we have a moral imperative to leave a better future for our children, we also have a moral imperative to not leave our most vulnerable brothers and sisters in the dark any longer.

[1] “Tracking SDG 7,” The Energy Progress Report,

[2] Sustainable Energy for All, “Chilling Prospects 2022: Tracking Sustainable Cooling for All,” 2022,

[3] UN High-Level Dialogue on Energy, “Global Roadmap for Accelerated SDG7 Action in Support of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change,” September 2021,

[4] International Energy Agency, “Africa Energy Outlook 2022: World Energy Outlook Special Report,” June 2022,

[5] United Nations Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy and Finance, “Global impact of war in Ukraine: Energy crisis,” August 2022,

[6] “Kigali Communique,” SEforALL Forum, May 19, 2022, =dumpFile&t=f&f=44024&token=c9d8a3e4e9ad4d22aa3c3b883055c9426760c584.

[7] Federal Government of Nigeria, “Nigeria Energy Transition Plan,” 2021,