Aaron Leopold


Aaron Leopold worked for Practical Action between December 2013 and May 2018 as our Global Energy Representative. In this role he led strategic engagement with key global processes, organisations and partners, as well as designing and coordinating advocacy work across Practical Action’s country and regional offices. He also co-authored Practical Action’s Flagship Poor People’s Energy Outlook. Prior to joining Practical Action, he was Director for Environment & Sustainable Development at the Global Governance Institute, which he co-founded. He also served as Team Leader and Editor for Sustainable Energy at the International Institute for Sustainable.

Recommended reading: http://practicalaction.org/energy

Posts by Aaron

  • Reflecting on technology in the lead up to COP21, Paris

    October 16th, 2015

    These videos outline the background to the UNFCCC meetings held recently in preparation for the vital COP21 climate change talks in Paris at the end of November.

    Technology needs assessment

    Over the past year developing countries have been identifying their priority technology needs, to provide a basis for a portfolio of environmentally sustainable technology development.


    The opportunities of decentralised renewable energy


    In depth technical paper to facilitate detailed planning

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  • Reflection on the Asia Clean Energy Forum ACEF2015

    June 26th, 2015

    Spending a week in Manila at the Asia Clean Energy Forum was an excellent opportunity to connect with colleagues and learn about what is going on in the energy access space in this key region of the world. What I learned there was both inspiring and disappointing however. Check out my thoughts on what the Asian Development Bank and others need to do to begin seriously addressing the global challenge of energy poverty.


    Thank you for watching this video blog, which will be followed up next week by a more comprehensive written blog reflecting on how we can move forward together to promote the decentralized energy services needed to quickly end energy poverty in a climate smart, economically empowering manner.

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  • Ensuring an Energy Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) delivers for poor people and the planet

    March 24th, 2014

    In late February, discussions over the post-2015 development agenda reached a milestone. The co-Chairs of the Open Working Group (OWG), the body tasked with preparing a Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proposal for consideration by the UN General Assembly in September 2014, issued a “Focus Areas Document.” This document provided the first formal glimpse of what the content of the next global framework to eradicate poverty and move towards truly sustainable development. While it mentioned dozens of development issues crucial to the success of the post-2015 agenda, many areas key to delivering sustainable development over the next decades remain incomplete or absent. In a previous blog, we presented Practical Action’s main messages on the Focus areas document more generally. This post, prepared in collaboration with CAFOD and IIED and representing the combined voice of our three organisations, looks specifically at one core development issue, energy.


    Energy is essential to all SDGs: actionable, outcome-based targets are required for success

    As the co-Chairs’ and other UN papers on energy and the SDGs acknowledge, energy is not a standalone issue but underpins efforts to achieve many other development goals. Because of this interconnectedness, we recommend an across-the-board approach to energy within the post-2015 framework, with specific targets rather than top-down and siloed goals unlikely to garner the multi-sectoral political support required for their achievement. Specific, actionable targets will facilitate discussions on how they can be achieved and which actors and activities, across different sectors, must be involved.

    If, however, the goals retain the sector-focused structure of the MDGs and SDG discussions thus far, we support a standalone Energy Goal based on the 3 targets outlined in the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative. However, more concrete indicators are needed under the three top-line targets to ensure rapid, ambitious, meaningful and measurable improvements in energy access, clean energy uptake, and progress on energy efficiency.

    On access, the SE4All Global Tracking Framework’s tier 3 indicators should be the minimum acceptable standard to qualify as having “access to modern energy services.” Tier 3 tracks outcome-oriented factors such as quality of service, for example having electricity available for a minimum of eight hours a day. It also holistically addresses a range of poor people’s energy needs through a basic but respectable package of wider energy and cooking services. Further indicators are needed to ensure progress on interconnected development needs in the areas of health, education etc. – often referred to as “nexus” issues.

    Delivering benefits from energy requires decentralised and “bottom-up” approaches


    Energy poverty and the range of energy nexus issues within post-2015 cannot be meaningfully addressed without increased support for deployment of decentralized (off-grid) energy provision. It is not feasible, affordable nor desirable to connect many rural populations to grids that are slow to deploy, prohibitively expensive, often unreliable, provide minimal long-term employment, and are mostly dependent on fossil fuels.

    High costs, low returns and perceived high risks make investment in necessary decentralised energy access in low-income markets unattractive to mainstream private investors. Given that once adopted, a target of universal energy access by 2030 will only have 15 years to achieve this task, it is crucial that the post-2015 process recognize that to be successful, any provisions on energy must foster delivery to the poorest must via a combination of public-private partnerships, social enterprise initiatives and public sector-financed aid or social support. Collaborative financing should deploy a combination of start-up grants, risk guarantees, and capacity building to provide the necessary support to enterprises delivering on decentralised energy access – and recognise that the very poorest are often not reached by the private sector alone. We call on the post-2015 process to acknowledge the key role of public finance and innovative public partnerships with the private sector and civil society in delivering solutions that work for the energy poor.

    Private sector finance alone cannot deliver universal access: a public sector role is critical

    High costs, low returns and perceived high risks make investment in decentralised energy access in low-income markets unattractive to mainstream private investors. Energy service delivery to the poorest needs to be a combination of public-private partnerships, social enterprise initiatives and public sector financed aid or social support. Increasingly social enterprises and small and medium enterprises are employing innovative finance mechanisms, including voluntary carbon finance markets, crowdfunding and investment from angel investors. Such initiatives utilise a combination of public and private finance, and deploy a combination of start-up grants, risk guarantees, and capacity building to deliver the necessary support to enterprises. Needed government incentives might include tax breaks, reduction of import duties, and public procurement programmes, while social protection schemes may serve an important purpose in meeting the needs of the very poorest, e.g. in post-conflict situations.

    Tackling the gendered dimension of energy poverty is essential

    Women and girls suffer the brunt of health problems and early mortality related to dirty cooking and heating fuels, a health issue of major global significance. An approach recognizing the structural nature of gender inequalities is therefore essential to promote transformative change. Concrete indicators on bringing gender budgeting into energy planning, increasing collection and analysis of disaggregated data on energy and gender, and incorporating gender into energy governance would support the transformative approach required to end these needless deaths and illnesses. Access to modern energy services can also play a crucial role in women’s economic empowerment. The post-2015 development agenda should incentivise investments in women’s access to energy services for enterprise development as well as strengthen women entrepreneurs’ capacities to engage in energy value chains.

    Poverty eradication depends on environmental sustainability

    Without tackling dangerous climate change, it will not be possible to eradicate poverty and ensure sustainable development. Global energy systems are responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions and must be transformed within the lifespan of the post-2015 framework. Targets on renewable energy and energy efficiency can support the shift to low/zero emissions development but, alone, are insufficient responses to climate change. Action to cut emissions and support poor people to adapt to existing impacts must be “mainstreamed” throughout the post-2015 framework by “climate-proofing” targets and indicators, and also by cutting fiscal incentives for the production of fossil fuels.

    Under any energy-specific goal area, targets on renewable and efficiency must incentivise adequate action by 2030. This means upping the current SE4ALL 2030 targets. We should aim for an annual global rate of improvement in energy intensity (energy/unit GDP) of at least 4.5% and for at least 45% of all primary energy use and energy infrastructure to be renewable. These targets must also integrate adequate social and environmental safeguards, ensuring the poorest have energy solutions appropriate for their needs.

    CAFOD, IIED and Practical Action feel that addressing these issues during the next round of consultations and the proceeding UN negotiations will radically improve the chances of an energy SDG delivering on its intended aims.

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  • On making the SDGs meaningful: Practical Action’s views on the state of play of the post-2015 development agenda

    March 4th, 2014

    United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Photo courtesy of IISD.UN negotiations on the post-2015 development agenda represent the follow-up process of two globally significant policy regimes: the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the Rio+20 conference of 2012. No small shoes to fill. On 21 February 2014, the co-Chairs of one of the key bodies in this process, the Open Working Group (OWG), released a preliminary sketch of the status of discussions on a variety of topics in their “Focus Areas Document.” Practical Action welcomes the strong and clear messages it contains. But while the document does encapsulate dozens of aspects crucial to the post-2015 development agenda, many areas key to its long terms success  are incomplete or altogether lacking.

    Focus area 7 on ENERGY, and particularly points on alleviating energy poverty, are at the core of progress in all other focal areas. We stress that the evidence on energy poverty is clear: neither energy poverty nor the litany of energy nexus issues (food security, education, health, water, gender equality, etc.) can be meaningfully addressed without emphasising deployment of decentralized (off-grid) provision of modern energy services, combined with robust indicators and monitoring systems. We strongly urge inclusion of these issues in discussions of any energy-related SDG goals to prevent energy, seen by many as the “missing MDG” from becoming a “meaningless SDG.”

    VIP-in-KenyaOn focus area 6 on WATER AND SANITATION, we welcome recognition of the need for safe drinking water and sanitation for all households, and urge that this ambition eventually be reflected in the indicators. However, we note that the bulk of issues raised in this focal area concern water and deeply lament that there is no mention of hygiene here or in focus area 3 on HEALTH.

    Considering focal area 13 on SUSTAINABLE CITIES AND HUMAN SETTLEMENTS, we note that this area must have a strong emphasis not only on poverty eradication, but critically, on promoting equality. If we cannot find a way of disaggregating indicators on the rich and poor of urban areas, the urban poor will remain among the un-counted and unreached.

    CLIMATE CHANGE is recognised throughout the document (including in the focal areas on energy, food security, infrastructure, sustainable cities) and with its own focal area 15, but it is conspicuously absent from focus area 9 on INDUSTRIALIZATION, a major contributor of continuing greenhouse gas emissions. Also absent from the document is mention of reducing risk from human-induced and natural hazards. We must ask whether the provision of social protection alone is able to reduce vulnerability and enable those currently living in poverty to fully participate in sustainable development.

    The mention of ‘inclusive’ growth in a number of focus areas is excellent but we feel strong and explicit linkages must be made between Focus Areas 8, 11, and 12 on ECONOMIC GROWTH, EMPLOYMENT AND DECENT WORK FOR ALL, and PROMOTING EQUALITY. In addition, care must be given when referring to ‘sustained’ growth as in focus area 8 and 12, which in a closed physical system such as our planet, is not a realistic or sustainable aim.

    The focus area 18 on MEANS OF IMPLEMENTATION is particularly welcome. Prioritising what will be measured in this enormous list of important issues will be hugely challenging. To transform systems most important to those living in poverty, such as agriculture, energy, water and sanitation, and the science, technology and innovation systems that support them, the ‘broad stakeholder engagement’ noted must promote the active, meaningful involvement of small and marginalised players.

    Although technology and access to technology is well represented throughout the document, globally we must look beyond transfer of technology from North to South, and recognise the potential of indigenous knowledge and local innovation to ensure a form of sustainable development that leaves no one behind. Missing from the document is reference to the desperate need to shift technology development towards those who need it rather than those who can afford it. This will require concerted investments in fostering grassroots and frugal innovation (i.e. innovation focusing on reducing the cost and complexity of goods and services), and the use and regulation of technologies that aim to deliver on sustainable development goals.

    Practical Action very much looks forward to continuing to engage with the post-2015 development process, and welcomes feedback on these issues.


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