This week, India will host the fourth Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM), an annual gathering of energy ministers and high-level energy officials from the world’s major economies. While this conference tends to go largely unnoticed in the wider world, the CEM represents an innovative—and potentially fruitful—approach to international energy and environmental policy. Initiated in 2009 by then-incoming U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, the CEM is designed to bring together those officials charged with understanding, regulating and improving the energy systems of the world’s biggest energy users. According to the CEM, the 20 participating countries account for 90 percent of clean energy investment and 80 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
There is no formal CEM treaty structure nor is there a specific mission or agenda other than providing a forum to address issues of common concern. This makes it similar in some ways to other forums like the G-8, G-20 or ASEAN, but its sole focus on energy differentiates it. Consisting of a high-level ministerial dialogue, working groups on concrete initiatives and high-level public-private meetings, the CEM provides unique opportunities. First, it allows for informal consultations on issues of common concern, and therefore allows for the discovery, development and articulation of common goals. Second, the meeting provides a platform for government technical experts to share best practices and ideas about concrete and actionable steps that could help address energy policy goals at the national level.
The location of the CEM rotates annually, and this year India will host in Delhi. With the international community currently engaged in a vigorous discussion about post-2015 development goals, attention has turned toward improving and broadening access to clean and sustainable energy services as a means of achieving poverty reduction goals. Reaching this broad goal will take a combination of both long-term development work and specific steps that are amenable to national-level policy interventions.
In a new policy brief, Arne Jacobson, Nick Lam, Tami Bond and I have identified one such possible clear and actionable step toward such a shared goal—replacing single-wick kerosene lamps with cleaner substitutes. We argue that while the household benefits of such lamps are clear and have been well documented, new research on the much greater climate impacts of black carbon from these lamps underscores a climate benefit that would be much greater than previously estimated. In addition, at a time when there is broad consensus about the need to start phasing out fossil fuel subsidies—in a way that doesn’t hurt the poorest¬—our approach can help reduce state expenditures on kerosene subsidies while actually improving the quality of the energy services for those most in need. This is an issue of great interest in India currently, where kerosene subsidy expenditures are large and the topic of much debate.
Our suggestion is just one of several focused, low-cost and technically feasible approaches to improving the energy systems in CEM countries. Improving appliance and building efficiency standards are other examples. The CEM has the potential to stimulate real and lasting improvements in national energy policies in the world’s major economies—and with that, real and lasting improvements in development, environmental and energy-security outcomes.