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Access to equitable vaccines distribution depends on renewable energy

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Access to equitable vaccines distribution depends on renewable energy

Decentralised renewable energy solutions present a key opportunity to provide clean, reliable, cost-effective, and tailored electricity services to rural health centres, argues Dr. Kandeh K. Yumkella.

President Biden has set out an ambitious foreign policy agenda to confront challenges at home and around the globe. However, as America repairs its alliances and engage with the world, a quick geopolitical win for the Biden administration could be democratising access to vaccines through multilateral cooperation, to reverse the trend of vaccine nationalism. 

During an epic ministerial dialogue hosted by IRENA Director-General, Francesco La Camera and WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus  with 160 countries during the 11th IRENA General Assembly to discuss – “Driving the Agenda for Energizing Healthcare”, participants focused on the stark realisation that emergency care and the distribution of vaccines to stop the spread of the coronavirus, especially in isolated areas and among the most vulnerable populations, requires adequately electrified and equipped healthcare facilities.

President Biden has a unique opportunity to combine his climate change agenda, the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and a resurgent American global leadership.  No one knows that better than John Kerry, the new Climate Envoy of Biden’s administration, given his former role as Secretary of State. When he also served on the advisory board for Sustainable Energy for All (which mobilised global action for an SDG-7). The “Build Back Better” mantra of the new administration could be a beacon to spread prosperity, inclusive growth and secure global peace and health security in a post-Covid world. So, President Biden and John Kerry have a golden opportunity to save the world and, in the process, save America.

Multilateral cooperation

The fact is that it can be done through multilateral cooperation.  GAVI has already immunised more than 800 million people through creative public-private partnerships; it has also inspired innovations in vaccine cold chain technologies to ensure that no one is left behind; and the GAVI Cold Chain Optimisation Platform (CCEOP) and Solar Direct Drive systems have demonstrated the vast possibilities for rapid and systematic solarisation of vaccine distribution in developing countries, especially in poor rural communities.  American philanthropy has led and driven GAVI’s successes.

Under Rajiv Shah, USAID also launched Power Africa which has made significant impact in expanding electrification in Africa. A month ago, he launched the new initiative to bring electricity to one billion people in developing countries. “Our goal is ambitious yet achievable: to bring reliable and sustainable electricity, powered by renewable technologies, to a billion people by the decade’s end. Our success will empower millions of people to participate in a modern economy, growing economic opportunity for us all,” said Shah. To build back better, we all need to be more ambitious. Imagine a US-China led global vaccine initiative, in cooperation with WHO, EU and the BRICS, an ambitious coalition, that includes all the countries producing vaccines now.

The first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated very clearly and very quickly how interconnected we are as peoples of a globalised world.  The disease spread to different geographies with great speed.  The economic shocks also hit most developing countries – several months before their first cases were reported – when global supply chains were disrupted.  As we brace ourselves for a second, and maybe a third wave of the virus, we must not forget that we are all in this together and “no one is safe, unless everyone is safe”.  Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in the energy systems in many developing economies that impact the delivery of critical sectors such as health and water.

Decentralised renewables provide solutions 

In this context, decentralised renewable energy solutions present a key opportunity to provide clean, reliable, cost-effective, and tailored electricity services to rural health centres currently lacking access or faced with unreliable supply. Harnessing the opportunity offered by stand-alone and mini-grid systems based on renewables could rapidly accelerate the electrification of healthcare facilities and unlock substantial benefits. As an integral part of the Covid-19 response, several countries, such as Nigeria and India, and development agencies have rolled out programmes to deploy mini-grids and stand-alone systems to power remote clinics, quarantine, and testing centres. 

Recent analysis by IRENA has shown that post-Covid recovery measures could drive a lasting shift in the global energy mix and linking the short-term recovery to medium and long-term strategies will be paramount to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.  Compared to current plans, an accelerated energy transition could add 5.5 million more jobs by 2023. 

WHO’s Dr. Tedros observed that a key impediment to our collective health security is the fact that about one billion people are served by health facilities without access to electricity, and in sub-Saharan Africa, one in four health facilities have no access to electricity. It is in recognition of this situation that WHO, World Bank, UNDESA, and the UN-system has launched the Health and Energy Platform for Action (HEPA) as a high-level coalition of leaders to promote electrification of health centres and bring modern energy cooking services to billions of people across the globe. Further, the UN will convene a high-level energy summit (the first of its kind in forty years) during the 76th General Assembly in September 2021.

However, HEPA’s success will depend on a deeper understanding of the imperatives of the broader energy transition challenges faced by developing countries. For example, the International Energy Agency (IEA) 2020 World Energy Outlook reminded us that the number of people without electricity access in Africa increased last year for the first time in seven years, and Covid-19 induced a thirty percent drop in energy sector capital investments in Africa (the largest drop in over a decade), with oil and gas hit the hardest.

Renewables continue to grow but increases in the cost of borrowing have clouded the prospect for further investments. From a more global perspective, the IMF-IEA Sustainable Recovery Plan calls for a green economy that guarantees the security of energy, food, and water to be embedded in Covid-19 recovery plans.  Achieving the ambitions of this plan and its $1 trillion price tag requires both public and private sector partnership. Rockefeller Foundation president, Rajiv Shah, noted succinctly that aligning public and private investments can allow faster progress in electrifying health facilities and achieving greater economic benefits at the community level but will depend on how effectively each nation establishes transparent and predictable enabling policies. 

Access to affordable financing is often cited as a main bottleneck for many countries faced with energy access deficits, particularly for non-revenue generating uses like healthcare. Additionally, the lack of credible data is a major impediment in correctly assessing the energy and infrastructural needs for electrification of health facilities, creating uncertainties and inefficiencies that can negatively impact the sustainability of renewable energy solutions for health facilities. 

With greater multilateral cooperation, we can overcome these constraints and build a more inclusive, just, and greener post-Covid world.  By immediately reviving its partnership with IRENA and WHO, America can catalyse this transition and demonstrate its return to global leadership for collective prosperity and security. 

Dr. Kandeh Yumkella is currently a Member of Parliament in Sierra Leone. Previously, he was UN Under-Secretary-General for Sustainable Energy for All and founding CEO of the Sustainable Energy for All and a two-term Director-General of the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO).

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