STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some other news. This week is the 20th anniversary of the United Nations Earth Summit. That was a meeting in Rio De Janeiro, and now diplomats and activists are marking that anniversary with a meeting they call the Rio+20. They're focusing on something nobody thought much about at the first Earth Summit - how to make energy available to everyone in the world. Here's NPR's Richard Harris.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Three of the world's biggest problems are completely intertwined. Poor people need sources of energy to raise their standard of living; cheap energy from fossil fuels produces large amounts of carbon dioxide; and carbon dioxide is changing the climate in ways that are hardest on poor people. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon knows firsthand about energy poverty. While he was growing up in South Korea during the 1950s and '60s, his house was lit with smoky kerosene lamps instead of electricity.
BAN KI-MOON: The candles are used only during the time to prepare for exam. Candles were considered to be too expensive for me and for most of the people.
HARRIS: His family finally got electricity when Ban was a college freshman, and it gradually spread throughout the country, bringing with it better education, better health, industry and wealth. But there are still 1.3 billion people in the world without reliable access to energy.
KI-MOON: Widespread energy poverty condemns billions of people to darkness, to ill health and to missed opportunities.
HARRIS: So at the U.N. meeting in Rio, Ban is hoping to kick-start a big initiative to end energy poverty by 2030. The plan is called Sustainable Energy For All. The idea is to make sure everyone on the planet has power, to cut in half the amount of energy that's simply wasted, and to double the share of renewable energy worldwide. This ambitious effort will cost something like $50 billion a year. But Carlos Pascual at the U.S. State Department says it's not another foreign aid program.
CARLOS PASQUAL: If you define that as a development aid problem from the outset, you have failed. If you define it as a strategy to be able to leverage and create the conditions for private investment, then you can succeed.
HARRIS: The idea is to create money-making opportunities to produce energy, especially clean energy, for people who need it most. Christian Friis Bach, Denmark's Minister for Development Cooperation, says making energy both abundant and clean presents a real dilemma.
CHRISTIAN FRIIS BACH: Because in order to promote access to all, also the poorest, prices must be low. If we want to double efficiency in the future, prices must be high. And if we want to make sure that it's sustainable energy for all, prices must be right.
HARRIS: These men spoke at a meeting this spring sponsored by the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. Friis Bach says on the plus side, it's much easier to talk about making energy available to everyone in the world than it is to talk about the need to crack down on emissions. In fact, it's turning the climate debate on its head.
BACH: Because the climate debate has been about constraints and restrictions from the top. Sustainable energy for all is about opportunities growing for all people, from the bottom.
HARRIS: But Rio may not turn out to be the best place to launch a bold initiative on clean energy for the world. Andrew Light from the Center for American Progress says the agenda for the Rio+20 meeting is so bloated and contentious that it's not clear what can be accomplished.
ANDREW LIGHT: The hazard here is that Rio+20 hasn't really lived up to the expectations that most of us have had. I mean, it's been a very almost chaotic process, and so attaching any kind of substantive proposal to this process is going to be difficult.
HARRIS: The challenge for Ban Ki-moon is how to keep his Sustainable Energy For All initiative alive, even if the U.N. meeting in Rio turns out to be a flop. Richard Harris, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.