The Covid pandemic has slowed progress towards sustainable energy goals even as renewables continue to gain ground

New online update of IEA data and projections on world’s efforts to meet key energy targets under the UN Sustainable Development Goals shows most measures are not on track

The impact of Covid-19 has reversed progress on access to electricity and clean cooking while slowing vital improvements in energy efficiency, according to the International Energy Agency’s latest update of data and projections related to key aspects of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. However, renewable energies have shown resilience to the shock caused by the pandemic.

Even if renewables maintain their rapid growth, and if access and efficiency improvements recover to their pre-pandemic pace, these measures will still lag the rate of improvement needed to achieve both universal energy access by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050, according to the IEA analysis SDG7: Data and Projections, which is fully available online.

UN Sustainable Development Goal 7, or SDG7, aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all by 2030. The IEA is at the forefront of global efforts to assess and analyse progress towards this goal, and its most up-to-date data and projections are available through these interactive data tools. For the first time, these projections incorporate the IEA’s landmark Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, in which the SDG7 targets are achieved in full.

About 770 million people worldwide lacked access to electricity in 2020, according to the most recent data, breaking a multiyear stretch during which the world was making marked progress. In Africa, the number of people without access increased for the first time since 2013, and the continent now accounts for almost 80% of the world’s population without electricity. Gains slowed down in Asia, but proved more resilient than in Africa, thanks to effective policies and easier access to financing. Without additional policy action, there would still be around 670 million people without access in 2030, almost all of them in Africa.

The number of people lacking clean cooking facilities rose in 2020, with serious implications for household air pollution and deforestation. The pandemic not only shifted government priorities away from clean cooking initiatives, but economic hardship forced many people who had gained access to revert to burning charcoal or wood for fuel.

Worldwide, about 2.5 billion people lack clean cooking options, and under today’s policy settings their number will decrease only to about 2.1 billion by 2030. Reaching full access by 2030 would require finding clean solutions for 280 million people a year, around five times the rate of improvement seen in the years leading up to the pandemic. 

Achieving full access to electricity and clean cooking by 2030 would require annual investment of around USD 43 billion – or only 2% of current global energy investment.

The pandemic also slowed energy efficiency progress, with global energy intensity improving by only 0.5% in 2020. Some of this was a result of global market turmoil, but low energy prices, fewer efficiency enhancements and a shift in economic activity towards manufacturing and away from less energy-intensive services all contributed to lower levels of intensity improvements. While early estimates for 2021 suggest a return to progress levels similar to before the pandemic, the average rate of improvement during the 2020s is expected to only reach 2.3% per year. This would be well below the 3.2% pace required to achieve SDG targets and the more than 4% pace needed to be on track to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

One bright spot is that renewable electricity capacity additions reached a new record in 2021, shrugging off the pandemic’s disruptions to economic activity and supply chains. Wind and solar have the fastest growth rates among renewable electricity sources, though hydro remains by far the largest source. With current policies, the world is on track to derive 18% of total final consumption from modern renewables by 2030, up from around 12% in 2019, though this would still be well short of the 32% needed by 2030 to be on track for net zero by mid-century.

The IEA works with four other international organisations – the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO) – to produce an annual report that reports the official statistics indicating progress on the SDG7 targets. The next edition is scheduled to be published in June.