The anticipation of a world powered by clean, reliable affordable energy is palpable. But what will it take to move beyond rhetoric into real action?

Energy and economic planning policymakers are having conversations about upgrading our homes and equipment, the use of renewables-based electricity and the rapid phase-down of fossil fuels. The promise of emerging technologies like energy storage and green hydrogen are capturing investor and entrepreneurial attention. Yet we also must navigate important societal issues about long-term policy and strategy, obtaining critical data for decision-making and tracking, the social acceptance of energy transition and, most important, putting people at the center of the energy transition.

We are already witnessing evidence of both the opportunities and challenges at major global events, such as the recent Clean Energy Ministerial in Goa, India, where there seemed to be a universal acknowledgement for swift and sizeable action, as well as the concern that the world is severely lagging behind the pace necessary to meet goals set out in the international Paris Agreement on climate change.

Aromar Revi, the founding director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, stated that in many circles, stakeholders have all but given up on trying to limit global warming to the 1.5 degree C (2.7 degrees F) threshold proposed in the Paris Agreement. “Negotiations are happening between 2.7 and 3.2 degrees [C],” he said. Highlighting the need for action, he added, “It’s about societal change. It’s about social innovation.”

Motorcycles riding down a road in India toward large wind turbines.
Motorcyclists ride along a highway dotted with wind turbines in Tamil Nadu, India. Government leaders around the world are starting to recognize the challenges and opportunities in creating an equitable energy transition. Photo by Kamionsky/iStock 

There’s still an opportunity to make big, fast and inclusive changes to a new way of generating and consuming energy that improves lives and safeguards the environment. But doing so requires moving beyond the conversations still rooted in the conceptual. It’s time to dig deeper and map a path forward.

In the lead-up to the UN Climate Change Conference (COP28), where nations will be called to account for the commitments they made, these are six of the conversations we should be having about a just transition to a clean energy economy.

1) Shift from Ideas to Immediate Action

The importance of shifting from ideas to action cannot be overstated. Discussions at the India G20 Energy Transitions Working group and at the Clean Energy Ministerial spoke to the critical need to take action, yet relatively little urgency was placed on rapid, scaled implementation to generate the 11.2 terawatts of required by 2030 for the world to stay within the 1.5 degrees C threshold set by the Paris Agreement (to put this in perspective, the energy consumption for all human beings is estimated at 17.7 terawatts). Moreover, the formal summary document for the event did not endorse that ambition.

This is the simplest conversation to have and the most vital. Governments, business and civil society need to shift the conversation from the conceptual to the practical and show what they are doing to spur this transformation. We should laud and learn from those who are already doing commendable work and inspire others to launch real initiatives.

2) Deliver an Efficient, Circular, Upgraded New Energy Economy — Beyond Supply

While the world still needs to define how to generate the 11.2 terawatts of renewable electricity required, the conversation needs to move beyond increasing energy supply. The transition to a new energy economy requires that we also address issues related to usage and consumption, equity and access, as well as mining the minerals required for a clean energy economy.

Encouragingly, there are established and practical examples of how governments can better engage citizens, not only to change behavior around energy consumption, but also to promote social acceptance of the changing ways to consume energy. These include India’s country-wide initiative to swap out conventional lightbulbs with energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, and Mexico’s national program that allowed residents to trade in refrigerators for energy-efficient models without the burden of paying for the upgrade. But there needs to be more conversation around current and forthcoming initiatives.

While discussions at Clean Energy Ministerial in India addressed the imperatives to set and reach carbon goals, reduce energy poverty and upgrade energy infrastructure, these topics didn’t feature prominently in the event summary, which instead prioritized energy security using conventional fossil investments. As a result, the current conversations on the energy transition only represent a subset of the conversations required to make massive cultural and economic shifts.

Fortunately, these conversations can happen in tandem. A broader, holistic perspective can prevent the same patterns of dwelling on energy supply and energy security and instead embrace other strategies for creating new carbon-effective and energy-productive energy economies.

3) Plan for the Next 10 Years — But Get Ready Now

We need longer-term perspectives on how new energy systems will be financed, implemented and maintained. Conversations on the energy transition are bifurcated: either looking at the zero-carbon future or at the immediate investment opportunity at hand.

Businesses and households tend to be focused on short-term financial investments that demand 3-to-5-year returns, rather than longer-term step changes away from business-as-usual. So, we replace one fossil gas heater with a newer version without knowing if there is an electric heat pump that might offer an improved energy and emissions profile. While we often hear concerns about the upfront costs of investment in renewable energy, we need to look at both capital costs investment for the initial development of renewable energy systems and think about the operating expenses for maintenance, repair and worker training.

One example of a more balanced planning approach can be found in the release of the UN Secretary-General’s SDG Stimulus to Deliver Agenda 2030 this February, which has as one of its three areas for immediate action the massive scale-up of affordable long-term financing for development. In International Renewable Energy Agency’s World Energy Transitions Outlook 2023, the report points to the need to invest in training workers who will need to operate and maintain both current and new systems over the long-term.

This issue of embracing longer-term strategies also came up as a theme in a July discussion hosted by the UN Economic and Social Council. During the plenary, Kehkashan Basu, Founder-President of the Green Hope Foundation, highlighted the success of a number of initiatives in Kutupalong, the world’s largest refugee camp located in Bangladesh, which helped reduce malnutrition and improve lives, emphasizing: “This is a consequence of a decade-long effort, based on a long-term plan of recovery.”

While we are seeing some come forward to advocate for longer-term strategies, we need to see more of this work its way into action and implementation plans for energy transition strategies.

A man holding a child walks over a wooden bridge in the Kutupalong refugee camp.
 A man carries a child over a bridge in the Kutupalong Refugee Camp in Bangladesh. Kutupalong has seen a number of successful long-term initiatives to reduce malnutrition and improve lives. Photo by Mostofa Siraj Mohiuddin/iStock.

4) Count It

Calls for more data and metrics are an increasing refrain in energy conversations about a just energy transition, which ensures communities and people have equitable access to power in a clean energy economy, and those whose jobs are currently tied to the fossil-fuel industry don’t get left behind. For example, at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting, specific opportunities were discussed on how to harness digital technologies and aggregated datasets to potentially reduce emissions by up to 20% by 2050 in the three highest emitting sectors: energy, materials and mobility.

The need for quantifiable measurement to better calculate “24/7 carbon-free energy” was also highlighted during the Clean Energy Ministerial. In a 24/7 carbon-free energy economy, energy load would be matched with renewable energy supply to promote grid decarbonization. However, this requires access to granular data of electricity loads on an hourly basis, as well as the carbon intensity of their grid’s electricity mix and electricity purchases.

There are questions around data and information to create standards and regulations for green hydrogen. Some in the energy community are lamenting that the world is “working with colors” in lieu of formal and international carbon performance standards and regulations.

And finally, there’s a need to collect and share data on consumption to drive behavior change in consumers. One example of a successful data-driven initiative happened in Bangalore, India, where utilities generated reports on energy usage for customers and compared customer usage to India’s national average, which resulted in a 7% reduction in in household energy use.

WRI has always championed this “Count it, change it, scale it” approach. Using a data-driven approach not only provides empirical evidence to inform key decisions, but also offers an additional motivator to encourage action by offering a baseline against which people can track progress. As Kathryn Huff, assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, commented during a Ministerial session: “You do what you measure.”

Smoke billows from a hydrogen plant in Iceland.
Smoke billows from a hydrogen plant in Iceland. Clean energy already exists and can be deployed to meet global needs. Photo by Gelnmore/Shutterstock 

5) Avoid the Pitfall of the “Technofix”

Technological innovation will be one of the key components to get us to a world of clean, reliable and affordable energy. But it’s important to understand that it’s not the only part of the equation.

While new technologies are exciting and potentially game-changing, like the launch of the International Hydrogen Trade Forum, the prospect of tomorrow’s technology shouldn’t prevent us from embracing technology that is ready and economically viable today. This is the danger of the “TechnoFix,” or the promise that we can continue our current patterns of behavior so long as an as-yet unforeseen technological miracle bails us out. The world no longer has the luxury of waiting for the next technology. It needs to act now.

Fortunately, technology already exists that can be deployed to meet our global need. Wind and solar technology in its current state is cheap and efficient enough to install at scale. The BloombergNEF third annual Energy Transition Factbook notes that renewables such as wind and solar are the cheapest power sources where two-thirds of the world lives, with solar and wind poised to become the cheapest technologies by 2030.

While certain technologies, such as long-term battery storage to enable 24/7 carbon-free energy, need to be refined, we still have plenty to work with today to build out renewable energy systems that will generate the required 11.2 terawatts. Beyond technology, we can still begin to work immediately to collect data and change behaviors that can reduce consumption.

Also, despite the necessity of technology in a just energy transition, it’s important to note that a global transition will not rest on a single technology. Despite the promise of innovations such as hydrogen, some speakers at the Clean Energy Ministerial were wise to point out the need for the right mix of technology based on specific conditions of a country or region. As Rashi Gupta, the pioneer of manufacturing advanced lithium batteries in India, said, “One technology cannot win the race of decarbonization.”

6) Put People at the Center

Given the range of ways in which a just energy transition can benefit people, we need more discussions on how policies and systems will impact real lives. Not only does this put the work in practical terms and frame it around real outcomes, but it also reminds us why we’re doing the work in the first place.

As we approach major events such as Africa Climate Week, New York Climate Week, the UN Secretary General’s Climate Summit and COP28, we have opportunities to dive deeper into pivotal conversations that can note the current failures in driving speed and scale in response to the climate emergency and the incredible opportunities that exist to create positive transformative changes in our economies. 

Those with significant influence have the chance to make a real difference and tread new ground rather than rehash the same conversations. The world will be watching to see if our institutions and governments can speed up the pace of a just energy transition. They’ll be keeping track of who takes action and who stands by idly. There’s no time to waste.