One of the more vexing problems facing international development is energy.  Accessing cheap and reliable sources of energy is critical to the economic development of poor countries. But if today’s poor countries get their energy from the same sources that we in the developed world used to spur our industrial revolution decades ago then we, as a planet, are doomed.  At the same time, it seems paternalistic to tell poor countries they can’t develop the way we, in the west, grew our economies through inexpensive coal and oil.

We know there are technologies out there–solar power, wind, other renewables — that are the energy of the future.  One of the main challenges facing the international communty is bringing that “energy of the future” to countries that want to develop rapidly today.

Enter Sustainable Energy for All, a new United Nations initiative that will launch next week at the Dubai World Future Energy Summit. In an International Herald Tribune op-ed this week, Ban Ki Moon explains why the UN is kicking off this project.

I particularly like the mobile phone analogy that Ban invokes.

This is the message I will bring to the World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi starting Monday. As I see it, we face two urgent energy challenges.

The first is that one in five people on the planet lacks access to electricity. Twice as many, almost 3 billion, use wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste to cook meals and heat homes, exposing themselves and their families to harmful smoke and fumes. This energy poverty is devastating to human development.

The second challenge is climate change. Greenhouse gases emitted from burning fossil fuels contribute directly to the warming of the earth’s atmosphere, with all the attendant consequences: a rising incidence of extreme weather and natural disasters that jeopardize lives, livelihoods and our children’s future.

Sustainable energy for all by 2030 is an enormous challenge. But it is achievable. My vision is for a world with universal energy access coupled with significantly improved rates of energy efficiency and a doubling of renewable energy in our mix of fuel sources. The obstacles are not so much technical as human. We need to raise sustainable energy to the top of the global agenda and focus our attention, ingenuity, resources, and investments to make it a reality.

Consider the precedent of cellular phones. Twenty years ago, universal access to mobile communications seemed preposterous. Yet as governments put proper frameworks in place and the private sector invested resources and pioneered business models, the communications revolution exploded.

A similar paradigm can emerge in sustainable energy. Developing countries can leapfrog conventional options in favor of cleaner energy solutions, just as they leapfrogged land-line based phone technologies in favor of mobile networks. Industrialized countries can and should support this transition to low-emission technologies, not least through their own example.

Yesterday, UN Foundation President Tim Wirth and UN assistant Secretary General Robert Orr held a press conference in which they delve deep into the issue and outline the UN and the UN Foundation’s role in Sustainable Energy for All.

Have a listen.

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