Whether they say they are or not, all conferences now are shaped by the two major crises of our time: climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Asia Clean Energy Forum (ACEF) 2020, hosted by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), was no exception.
The big question that hung over this event was ‘would the post-pandemic reconstruction distract attention and draw resources from the fight against climate change? Or would the region make clean energy transition a central part of the rebuilding process?’ and while there was plenty of optimism among forum participants that a positive transition is possible, for many the jury was still out.
The effects of the pandemic
How has the coronavirus affected this situation? For one, investment into clean energy applications seems to be stalling. In an opening-day session on the effects of COVID-19 on energy access, Dymphna van der Lans of the Clean Cooking Alliance reported that 80% of investors were delaying financial decisions.
Damilola Ogunbiyi, CEO and special representative of the UN Secretary General for Sustainable Energy for All, spoke at the “Spotlight Session: Energy Access Amidst COVID-19 and Beyond” and noted that while renewables have made strides, there was a long way to go for the region to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 – affordable and clean energy – by 2030.
The most notable example was India – the world’s third largest consumer of energy still depends on coal for 75% of its energy. At the other end of the spectrum even the Maldives, a country that has made significant progress toward achieving universal access to electricity, is still largely dependent on fossil fuels.
But the glass remains half full
There was reason for optimism, however. Conference participants like Ben Jeffreys pointed out that there has been an encouraging level of public interest in the renewable energy sector.
Jeffreys said his company ATEC*, which manufactures and supplies bio-digesters in Bangladesh and Cambodia, had recently seen a renewed demand for appliances. Energy solutions developers Tessol, a fuel-free cold chain distribution system for food and pharmaceutical products in India, and Oyika, a battery-share initiative for electric motorbikes in Singapore, both presented in a session entitled “Adapting to the New Normal” and reported a growing interest in their products following the pandemic.
Other panel members said their countries are pursuing distributed and mixed sources of renewable energy, which combine wind, solar and biogas. This approach was seen as a potential ‘game-changer’, particularly for island nations, said ADB energy specialist Woo Yul Lee during his presentation in the “Gender, Innovation and Climate Change in ADB Projects” session.
The policy challenge
As Ms. Ogunbiyi noted at the spotlight session, clean energy is prioritized in countries like Malaysia, where clean energy development has been incorporated into the economic stimulus package.
“The consensus at the conference was that other governments now need to push the adoption of renewable energy during the economic recovery. Glen Pearce-Oroz of Sustainable Energy for All, a panelist in the “Building Momentum for a Better Recovery” session, made the economic argument. Seventy-five jobs, he said, were created for every $10 million of investment in the development of renewables against 27 from a corresponding investment in fossil fuels.”
The growing importance of collaboration
Emily Morris of Emrgy, a company that builds small turbines for solar, hydro, and wind power generation argued during the “Gender, Innovation and Climate Change” session that the private sector must deliberately invest in the transition to clean energy.
“Cross-sector interventions are critical,” said Morris.
Ogunbiyi added that she believes cleantech investors stand to reap healthy returns on investments made during the recovery period.
The ADB itself was also championing cleantech. In the “Scaling Energy Tech” session, ADB introduced its new venture capital arm ADB Ventures – a $60 million fund that will provide long-term support to innovative developments.
A black swan?
Some participants referred to the pandemic as a “black swan” event, something that could be inappropriately rationalised after its occurence, and wondered whether the global community was relying too much on the hope that the pandemic would be a catalyst for a transition to clean energy.
In the closing plenary on “Rebounding from COVID-19 and Future Directions,” Dr. Ilan Noy of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand warned that the biggest risk going forward was that “we focus on COVID, not climate”. He also wondered if governments would be able to afford pursuing cleantech in the near future. “If governments are [now] borrowing to create stimulus packages,” said Dr. Noy, “will the budgets for clean energy [still] be there?”
For more on the global transition to clean energy, see Teymoor Nabili’s interview with Alberto Mendez of Vattenfall on how to secure a carbon-free future in Asia.