A sustainable energy, climate future is our vision for Western Hemisphere

The Organization of American States (OAS) recently co-hosted a meeting of energy ministers and secretaries from the Western Hemisphere. Coming right before the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, this meeting delivered a clear message addressing one of the Americas’ most daunting long-term challenges; finding ways to tap into non-conventional sources of energy while developing our economies. As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu highlighted during the meeting, our countries are taking the first steps on a journey to a more energy-independent, economically vibrant and environmentally aware hemisphere.

Luis Alberto Moreno, president of the Inter-American Development Bank, noted that the Americas are well positioned for the clean energy revolution. In terms of renewable energy, more than 60 percent of the electricity generated in Latin America already comes from renewable sources. Brazil, Canada, and the United States are some of the biggest producers of hydroelectricity. Virtually all the electricity consumed in Paraguay is renewable, as well as vast majorities in Venezuela and Costa Rica. In 2008, the leading biofuels producers — Brazil and the United States — accounted for almost 90 percent of world ethanol output. And leading regional authorities, like Arturo Florez of the Latin American Energy Organization (known by its Spanish-language acronym OLADE), noted that Chile has strong energy policies with a clear vision for more efficient use of alternative energy.

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Nonetheless, the enormous potential of our hemisphere contrasts with a shortage in the supply of sustainable energy. While many countries have expanded their electricity networks and extended electricity generation and distribution to many remote areas, some 40 million people in the Americas still have zero access to electricity. This lack of electricity translates into inefficient sanitation, weak education systems, and the inability to develop productive, income-generating activities. Additionally, the Caribbean nations, while benefiting from almost universal electricity coverage, face challenges related to affordability and sustainability of energy supplies.  Most rely on fossil fuels for their energy. Electricity rates in some of these countries exceed $0.40 per kilowatt hour — more than four times the rates paid in much of the United States. Ultimately, such high dependence on imported fossil fuels is taking a toll on these nations.  

Climate change further exacerbates these challenges, causing changes in rainfall patterns, disrupting agricultural cycles, and triggering financial losses in rural areas. Droughts also affect the generation of hydroelectricity. These are just some of the energy-related challenges facing the Americas.

Overcoming them requires political will, creativity, persistence and patience. Still, recognition of the problem and our relationship to it are coming to the fore. Mexico’s energy secretary, Georgina Kessel, observed wryly that climate change and the energy sector are two sides of the same coin, acknowledging the role of energy producers and adding that they must also be a part of the solution.

So, how do we tackle the energy challenges facing our hemisphere?

First, the region must redouble its efforts to improve energy efficiency. In Latin America, energy consumption has grown faster than the region’s GDP.

Many industrialized countries have successfully decoupled economic growth from energy inputs by increasing efficiency and productivity. There remains a great potential for reducing energy needs while still expanding economic growth.  We should challenge our leaders to find ways to make this a reality.

Further, we must identify and develop sustainable sources of energy. The OAS currently supports efforts with our member states to do just that. Since 2007, we have been working with Brazil and the United States to implement the bilateral accord between these two countries to promote the development and use of biofuels. The OAS is helping countries in Central America and the Caribbean to benefit from the knowledge developed in the U.S. and Brazil. By transferring know-how and technology, this partnership can help build local ethanol and biodiesel production meeting local transportation needs.   

Finally, at the Summit of the Americas last year, President Barack Obama stated that “we must come together to find new ways to produce and use energy.” He proposed the creation of the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) to help secure a sustainable future. A Brazilian representative at the recent Washington meeting noted that this partnership is an exceptional opportunity to exchange ideas and debate policies about sustainable development while enhancing regional cooperation. The OAS has been designated to coordinate the ECPA Clearinghouse. This year, the OAS will collect information and best practices that may be shared throughout the region.

We are at a historic crossroads where the nations of the Americas must unite to radically transform the way we produce and utilize energy.  The time has come to embrace a new technological and industrial revolution, rooted in sustainability and the promotion of renewable energy and energy efficiency. We must combat the scourge of energy shortages and foster infrastructure to facilitate modern, climate-friendly forms of energy. 

Insulza is the secretary general of the Organization of American States.