Last week, I spent four stimulating days in Seoul at the Korea International Renewable Energy Conference (KIREC), co-organised by REN21, the Korean government and the Seoul Metropolitan government. KIREC was the 8th IREC conference which has its origins in 2004, when renewables were still very much at the margins of the energy system, seen mostly as expensive and unreliable. Of course, Practical Action knew long before then that renewable energy solutions like micro-hydro can play a key role in transforming people’s lives in many corners of the globe!
At the first IREC conference in 2004 in Bonn, a coalition of the ‘willing’ came together to discuss ways of accelerating the development of renewables. Since then, we have seen a huge growth in renewables and they now contribute 27% of electricity generation, compared to 18% in 2004. However, there is still much work to be done, especially in end-use sectors where heat production and transport are still very much dominated by fossil fuels. In the energy access area, renewables (especially solar PV) have had a transformative impact on many communities but the challenges of achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7 by 2030 (aiming at energy access for all and a substantial increase in renewables in the global energy mix) are still enormous, hence the need to gather again to discuss key next steps for renewables deployment.
Most renewables conferences you go to, the majority of the discussions are about technology and economics. KIREC was different in that it had a whole track of the parallel sessions dedicated to the social dimension of the energy transition, including sessions on energy access. I chaired a session on clean cooking with great speakers and panellists from the Clean Cooking Alliance, Sustainable Energy for All, the World Health Organisation, Greenway Grameen, and Korea’s Climate Change Centre. We also had some helpful contributions to the discussions from audience members from the Kenyan Ministry of Energy and the African Development Bank. Everyone agreed that clean cooking was a difficult area to tackle but that we needed to drive forward various new and established approaches, even if they are not always perfect (e.g. cookstoves that use LPG rather than renewable fuels). The bottom line is that we need to improve as quickly as possible the lives of the 3 billion people suffering from the health impacts of dirty cooking fuels.
It was also great to meet up with a number of ‘old’ colleagues and friends who I first met at climate conferences in the late 1990s. 20 years on we are all still battling to save the people and the planet by driving forward the transition to clean energy. We have seen ups and downs in our endeavours but we are not giving up! And the new generation of ‘planet guardians’ was there too. Dohyun Kim, Korea’s answer to Greta Thunberg, made a strong call for action in the first plenary session (and was the only female in a line-up of 13 speakers!). Considering Korea is still burning lots of coal and per capita CO2 emissions are twice those of the UK, action is certainly needed urgently there.