The good, the bad and the meaningful – measuring what matters in the Energy SDG


Sinteyo at the Community Based Green Energy Project, Isiolo, Kenya

This week’s The Economist bemoans the list of potential Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and targets under discussion at the UN as “sprawling and misconceived”.

Most people would agree that 169 is a lot of targets. But whether you also agree with The Economist’s view that the SDGs are being “set up to fail” – and whom/what is to blame – the discussion at the UN has moved on.

On the table now are a list of potential indicators to measure progress on the targets compiled by the UN Statistical Commission. While this may seem like one for the technocrats, given the old management adage that “what gets measured gets done“, it is also a crucial discussion for civil society to watch.

Energy in the SDGs

When it comes to the Energy SDG (SDG 7), the goal and targets appear to enjoy considerable support. The links between having no or low access to energy and many aspects of poverty are clear. Over a billion people worldwide still do not have the electricity to power their homes – let alone to grow food and run businesses – while many more (mainly women and girls) suffer the health impacts of cooking over smoking fires, and miss out on school to collect firewood.

Moving to more sustainable and efficient energy systems globally is also critical for preventing dangerous climate change. These two messages featured strongly in a joint workshop on sustainable development held by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Social Sciences (PASS) last year.


About fifty-percent of available energy is accessed by just one billion people, yet the negative impacts on the environment are being felt by the three billion who have no access to that energy.  Three billion have so little access to modern energy that they are forced to cook, heat and light their homes with methods dangerous to their health.

The massive fossil fuel use at the heart of the global energy system deeply disrupts the Earth’s climate and acidifies the world’s oceans. The warming and associated extreme weather will reach unprecedented levels in our children’s life times and 40% of the world’s poor, who have a minimal role in generating global pollution, are likely to suffer the most. PASS, May 2014

SDG 7 aims to close the energy gap in ways the planet can sustain by ensuring “access to affordable, sustainable, reliable, and modern energy services for all”. It has 3 targets: universal access to energy, increasing the share of renewables in the global energy mix and doubling the annual rate of improvement in energy intensity (which also happen to mirror, more or less, the targets of SE4ALL, see below).

Energy also made it into the final list thanks to the efforts of civil society organisations who have worked on this issue for years – and a more recent push by the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All (#SE4ALL) initiative. A number of development and environment groups, including CAFOD, produced a joint briefing on Energy in the Post-2015 Development Framework in 2014 and we are now turning our attention to the indicators.

We think the targets will put us on the right road, but will they take us far enough down it? And will the indicators measure the right things in the right ways?

First of all, to wean ourselves off the polluting fossils causing climate change, the current 2030 targets on renewables and energy efficiency need beefing up.  Along the lines of tripling our efforts, rather than doubling them, as the current targets propose.

And when it comes to the indicators for measuring progress on energy poverty, simple is not always beautiful (whatever The Economist thinks).

New ways of defining and measuring “energy access”

The proposed indicators define access in binary terms: for electricity access, does a household have an electricity connection or not? And for cooking, do people cook with solid (e.g. wood or coal) or non-solid (e.g. LPG or electricity) fuels?  According to a report by the UN Statistical Commission, these indicators were ranked highly by national statistical agencies surveyed for their views on their feasibility, suitability and relevance.

The problem is that they will not tell us what kind of energy services people get, for how long – and most importantly if they meet their needs and wants. It is no good having electricity that only works for a few hours a day, or has repeated blackouts, or if you cannot afford to pay for it. And while it is better to have a light at night than not, people need more than a light to build lives with dignity.

Finally, it should come as no surprise that people’s energy needs vary according to their different locations and realities. As The Economist reminded us this week, when designing development policies “local context is vital”.

A transformative Energy Goal needs indicators that can tell us whether people are getting good quality, reliable, affordable and safe enough energy to lift themselves out of poverty. This requires going beyond basic household needs to providing energy that can power farms and businesses, as well as community services like health clinics and schools.

The results of a solar energy programme being implemented by CAFOD and its partners in some of the most vulnerable arid and semi-arid regions in Kenya underpins this last point (see Sinteyo’s story below and watch it here).

The programme aims to give 407,000 households community energy services. This includes solar heating and lighting and energy-saving stoves for schools and health clinics, as well as refrigeration systems for the clinics; water pumping systems and greenhouses for women’s groups; and solar-powered ICT centres for youth groups. It also provides them with other knowledge and skills they need to use the energy to build sustainable livelihoods such as agronomy and marketing.

The results to date are impressive. Over 292,000 people have reported positive impacts such as increased income levels and food security, reduced environmental degradation from cutting down trees, improved health and safety, and better communications.  Overall, both individuals and communities have reported improved well-being from the project.

Sinteyo’s Story

Sinteyo is one of a group 22 women in a Maasai village in Isiolo County, Rift Valley who are growing tomatoes in a greenhouse installed by CAFOD’s partner Caritas Isiolo. A solar pump brings water up from the river to a large water tank just above the greenhouse.  The women sell the tomatoes at the market and share the profits as a cooperative.

According to Sinteyo: “There have been a lot of benefits, because we never knew how to grow tomatoes before, but we were trained and shown how to do it. The greenhouse has helped us to cope with the climatic conditions. It’s always there and whenever you lack food you just come into the greenhouse to get a few of the tomatoes, and you are able to save money from selling them. That helps us to feed ourselves”.

The good news is that there are some innovative approaches trying to measure energy access differently –  and as such these could make a real difference to how services are designed for people like Sinteyo.

The front-runner is the Global Tracking Framework (GTF) developed for the SE4ALL Initiative – and which could become the prime candidate for tracking progress on a new Energy SDG.  It is generating growing interest – as CAFOD found out from the enthusiastic reception to its Side Event at the UN last week on measuring energy access.

The GTF aims to measure access to energy across a number of attributes, including how much power people get, for how long, and how reliable, affordable and safe the service is. It takes a “multi-tiered” approach, defining different levels of access from 0-5, with 5 as the highest. It also looks not just at households but at energy for productive uses (e.g. farming) and community services (e.g. health and education).

In a recent briefing, CAFOD and 27 other civil society groups and energy access practitioners cited this approach as the way to ensure the energy access target has real development teeth.  A discussion is definitely to be had – and is welcomed – about what is the minimum level of energy services required to lift people out of poverty in different contexts, but the need for a meaningful, global baseline so we can measure progress on the target is indisputable.

We are proposing GTF Tier 3 as the minimum level for electricity, with GTF Tier 4 for cooking, given new evidence from the World Health Organisation on the devastating health impacts of indoor air pollution from cooking. Tier 3 comprises a low but adequate level of electricity for households which is affordable, reliable and available for eight hours a day, a package of energy services including lighting, phone charging, radio and television, an electric fan and food processing applications. For productive uses, it would allow for the use of, for example, a sewing machine, a drilling machine or a potter’s wheel. For cooking, Tier 4 would mean at least the use of a stove which either uses non-solid fuel, or a very high-quality biomass stove which is well-vented.

The GTF may not be perfect – for instance, it follows SE4ALL’s lower level of ambition on the renewables side. As a work in progress, it will doubtless need improving over time as it is rolled out, as more accurate data is collected – and probably as it hits bumps in the road.

But it does signal the right direction of travel to meet the widely-shared aspiration of eradicating extreme energy poverty within a generation.

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One Response to “The good, the bad and the meaningful – measuring what matters in the Energy SDG”

  1. Sharing the load: who pays for energy access? | Serpents and Doves: A development policy blog Says:

    […] This also links to wider calls for “access” to energy to be measured differently in the proposed Energy Sustainable Development Goal to lift people out of poverty – tracking access to different levels or “tiers” of services and evaluation whether they are good enough quality, reliable, affordable and safe enough be usable on the ground. For more on this, see my previous post. […]

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