As the president of the UN Foundation, former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth’s job is to connect people, ideas, and resources to help the United Nations solve global problems.
Two kinds of power, electricity and empowerment, were on Senator Wirth’s mind when he sat down to discuss Rio+20, the UN’s largest sustainable development conference happening now in Rio de Janeiro.
“I think the number one outcome of all the discussions that are ongoing here is Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s initiative Sustainable Energy for All,” Wirth told National Geographic News.
“The Secretary-General has asked for significant commitments from both governments and business leaders to provide modern energy services to the about 1.3 billion people on this planet that don’t have it,” he said.
The initiative calls for three complementary objectives–expand access, improve efficiency, and double the percentage of renewable energy production–to address energy issues on a global scale.
The numbers are staggering. One in five people lack access to electricity and even more rely on coal, wood, or animal waste for cooking and heating. To tackle this widespread and diverse problem Sustainable Energy for All is promoting a multifaceted approach that relies on empowering local communities and especially women.
In Ethiopia, a clean cookstove project has provided 2.6 million households with improved stoves that protect families from harmful particulate matter. Also, a group called Solar Sister has been training female entrepreneurs across Africa to start businesses selling solar lamps.
Sweeping initiatives like Sustainable Energy for All show that positive action can spring from international collaboration. So why has enthusiasm for Rio+20 been so muted?
“There is only so much political power in the world,” explained Wirth. “So, if you are going to empower girls and women, you are disempowering some of the old reactionary authorities and they don’t like that very much.”