Ban Ki Moon likes to call sustainable energy the “golden thread” that weaves through the entire international development agenda. You can’t have sustainable development with out sustainable energy.  And you can’t have sustainable energy without new investments in technology and infrastructure. That is why President Obama’s rollout this week of the $7 billion Power Africa initiative is significant in both real and symbolic terms.

Africa, in general, is becoming wealthier. Economies are growing fast. The IMF says that sub-Saharan Africa grew at an impressive 5.1% last year and will continue to grow at that pace for years to come.  Still, two thirds of sub-saharan Africana lack access to modern energy sources. If you are looking at rural populations, that figure jumps 85 %.

The improvements in heath and welfare of sub-Saharan Africa which are the heart of the international development agenda can ultimately only be achieved if people can escape poverty. That requires access to modern energy. But here’s the rub: the population of Sub-Saharan Africa is approaching 1 billion people. About one in seven people on the planet is African. If Africa develops as the USA and western Europe did by relying on fossil fuels, we are pretty much doomed as a species. The planet can’t handle that added stress.

The Sustainable Energy for All movement, launched by Ban Ki Moon, seeks to navigate this dilemma by combining a goal of universal access to modern energy services by 2030 with twin goals of doubling energy efficiency globally and doubling the share of renewables in the global energy mix.  Interestingly, the fact sheet about Power Africa released by the White House references the universal access by 2030 goal, suggesting that there is some official buy-in for these goals at the top levels of the US government.

Threading this energy issue is the fundamental challenge at the heart of international development. And it is a real moral dilemma: people deserve to be free from grinding poverty, but the global common good demands that they use sustainable means to get there.

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