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Powering human development: why Asia Pacific needs a different approach to meet its energy needs

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By Kanni Wignaraja

· 6 min read

Imagine a world powered by clean, renewable energy, where progress is measured not in kilowatts and carbon footprints, but by the empowerment of communities, improved healthcare, new tech jobs, bustling non-polluting economies, and thriving innovation. 

It’s a vision that has to move from aspiration to reality given the population and growth trajectories for Asia and the Pacific. This region cannot afford to fail. Home to 60 per cent of the world’s population, it relies on fossil fuels for 85 per cent of its energy needs, accounting for half of the world’s CO2 emissions. Although commendable strides have been made in investing in and expanding capacity for renewable energy sources such as hydropower, wind, and solar, the proportion of renewables in the energy mix is not keeping up with the escalating demand.

At the same time, Asia and the Pacific endure the highest frequency of natural disasters among developing regions, experiencing over 140 incidents in 2022 alone. These disasters caused over 7,500 deaths while affecting over 64 million people. The resulting economic havoc caused losses to the tune of $57 billion. It follows that the upside – and the stakes – could not be higher for a transition to renewables. 

Beyond gigawatts: giga-possibilities

Adopting a human development approach can help chart a comprehensive path forward. Its focus lies on people’s well-being, prioritizing the expansion of capabilities and choices.  A human development lens looks beyond metrics like installed capacity (gigawatts) to instead appraise the human-powered progress a renewable energy transition would unlock. Beyond hardware like solar panels or wind turbines, it measures human development gains: empowered communities, safe public spaces, decent work, and prospects for a brighter future for all.

The UNDP's 2024 Regional Human Development Report underscores this point. It recognizes access to reliable, clean energy as a tool for social and economic advancement, driving economies, creating jobs, connecting rural and urban, and eliminating poverty – unlocking opportunities for millions at risk of being left behind. 

What does this mean? 

It means that elements of economic development, social equality and environmental sustainability, such as inclusivity, affordability, gender equality, community participation or local ownership, are the ends we pursue through traditional measures of capacity and energy supply. Solar panels are a means to improve education, health, public safety and jobs, not an end. 

In my meetings with national and local leaders around the region, a common topic has emerged: how to rethink and replace grids to transform energy sectors. At UNDP, our systemic approach to energy strives to ensure that clean, renewable energy access aligns with key societal aspects like public service provision, rural livelihoods and eradicating poverty, promoting an inclusive, sustainable transformation of the energy landscape.

It helps to put ourselves in the shoes of common people. Despite the progress made, millions in Asia and the Pacific still lack reliable, affordable clean energy, hindering their health, education, and livelihoods. 

Renewable energy offers a critical opportunity to create the millions of new jobs this region so desperately needs, especially for youth and rural communities. As of 2021, 12.7 million people globally worked in the renewables sector, with Asia and the Pacific leading the way, but with a high concentration in a handful of countries. These jobs require the right skills and training, and this is a pre-investment we need to thrive in this space.

Continuing downstream, the region needs revitalizing and expanding power grids to handle this green surge. This retooling poses its challenges both in areas with existing grids and those needing off-grid solutions. Reskilling workers from fossil fuels and ensuring social safety nets during this transition are crucial, creating even more new opportunities. Ultimately, grids must connect where people are – to their markets, schools, clinics and homes – if not to leave them behind.

Simply put, equity must be at the center of preparing for, and delivering, a just energy transition. 

The future of power is here

We are seeing promising examples in our work with partners across the region, adopting a systemic approach that takes into consideration the connections across climate, environment, gender, health, governance, economy, and finance.

Take Bhutan, where UNDP supports the government in electrifying taxis, replacing old gas guzzlers with 300 clean machines that can offset 95,000 tons of carbon annually and support Bhutan's commitment to maintaining its carbon neutrality – a distinction held by only a few countries in the world. 

In Indonesia, we supported an ambitious new clean energy transition roadmap, which attracted $20 billion in funding by the International Partners Group. The landmark agreement, announced alongside the G20 Summit in 2022, aims to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 29% by 2030, a figure that can rise to 41% with scaled international support.

In rural Nepal, where access to energy and water is scarce, micro-hydro plants have provided light and opportunities. UNDP has supported the restoration of power to 25,000 homes, sparking over 40 mostly women-led businesses, and irrigating land for hundreds of food-insecure families. Solar water pumps are purifying drinking water for 11,000 individuals, and solar backups ensure healthcare and education spaces remain lit. 

In Papua New Guinea, we are contributing to better outcomes in healthcare, education, and basic services by bringing solar power to 100,000 rural dwellers. Six locations, encompassing 300,000 residents, now have reliable solar energy in their schools and health centers. An upcoming expansion promises 1MW to serve another 330,000 people. 

And in Afghanistan, our solar energy solutions are providing access to energy to over a million Afghans, many of them living in remote locations and often off-grid. 

Such results are attained through determination and purpose, proper solutions design and funding capable of scaling them. Investing in clean energy is not a pilot and needs collaborative partnerships and innovative financing solutions that are willing to be big and bold. Only this way can the Asia-Pacific region truly transform its energy landscape and secure a sustainable future.

… the trajectory depends on choices to be made.

Scale, collaboration, innovation: these are the elements required to make affordable clean energy accessible to all.  They require wise and judicious decisions from those who set energy policy and tariffs, from investors and business owners, and from local community advocates and consumers. Over 80% of middle-class growth over the next ten years is projected to take place in this region. The consumption and production choices made by this group will drive the energy mix. Will they be the right ones?

We need to do all we can to help with these choices. This involves, for instance, providing impartial data and analysis. It also means ensuring the transparency and suitability of the energy marketplace, its policies, and the incentives driving it. We have seen how market disruptions have dealt a setback to decarbonization and several Asia Pacific countries have witnessed an uptick in coal use and exports. This underscores the urgency of accelerating a clean energy transition and moving away from unsustainable fossil fuels.

A human development lens on energy transformation points to what we must buy into, and why. That positive narrative is even more powerful than what we must get out of. Renewable power empowers people and brings the prospects for a better life within reach for so many more. The impact of gigawatts should be measured by the possibilities they generate for the hundreds of millions still waiting in the darkness.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the author

Kanni Wignaraja, UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Assistant Administrator, has been overseeing the UNDP's Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific since November 2019. With over 25 years of UN and UNDP experience, she spearheads sustainable development efforts, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. With expertise in policy, program, and management, she has contributed significantly to research and conferences on public policy, institutional reform, capacity development, human rights, and leadership.

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