Here’s the challenge: First, eradicate poverty by getting over 90 percent of the world connected to electricity. Second, save enough energy to keep global warming below 2 degrees. And get both done by 2030.

How this can be done was the topic discussed at the 5th biannual Vienna Energy Forum (VEF) hosted by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), together with their partners the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), the Austrian Foreign Ministry and Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) with over 1,650 delegates, experts, officials and hangers-on in the opulent Ballroom of the Vienna Hofburg – a perfect place to discuss poverty.

“The city is not the problem, the city is the solution,” Vienna’s Green vice-mayor Maria Vassilakou told the group, as speakers trudged through their formal duties, exhorting “rich discussion, active engagement … and partnership thinking.”

True to the organizer’s remit, those who followed were a colorful collection from around the globe (with the conspicuous scarcity of Americans, North or South). There were crisp, bearded Europeans in well-cut suits, persuasively eloquent Indians with impressive academic credentials, and a succession of African women contrasting extravagant national garments with businesslike analysis. Amid an audience of skinny suits, one lone dude in sneakers and Panama seemed to come from another galaxy.

Vienna Energy Forum
Courtesy of Vienna Energy Forum

Solutions beget problems

An endemic problem in such unwieldy tasks is the clash of single issue campaigners, who find it hard to accept a minor role in the overall solution. The complexities are daunting. Take water: Hydroelectric can be a clean and sustainable source of energy, delivering better health and economic opportunities to help lift millions out of poverty. But the necessary dam construction destroys the livelihood of farming communities, creating its own cataract of economic and human disaster.

Gender issues here are not the stuff of intellectual campus scrimmages, but an important part of the global war on poverty.  Ancient structures militate against women in multiple ways: Millions spend half their working day gathering or collecting firewood and water, with catastrophic limits on access to education.  (Not to mention the fumes from solid fuel cooking that are a major toxic hazard).  Or they are considered not creditworthy, and have no access to the small business financing that can bring a family to modest prosperity.  It was striking that the most impressive women speakers were often from the poorest countries, reporting, as it were, from the kitchen front.

Good news, bad news

A major objective was to motivate participants and backers, so constructive optimism is certainly legitimate. Amid the general consensus that time is running out, there were alternating flashes of hope and doom. The hope: Solar power, sustainable energy’s star performer, is now producing at 3 cents a unit, down from 15 only a few years ago and cheaper than gas or oil. The doom: An engineer’s report that there won’t be enough capacity to meet the goals for 2030. Outside observers are even more skeptical.

Seated next to a young French energy consultant working out of Frankfurt, the picture was bleak. Asking to be anonymous (“Please, no name; I have to work with these people”) she was not optimistic. The technical barriers are enormous: Solar drops off the cliff at sundown just when demand peaks, wind power is unpredictable and there is still no effective way to store electricity. The political climate is even worse: Donor nations act in their own interests and local corruption is draining what resources remain. Her doomsday finale was chilling: “Even if we meet the optimistic targets, there is only a 50 percent chance of averting catastrophe.” To wit: The 160 million delta nation of Bangladesh will be under water. “Now that’s a migration problem.”

Scanning the room, the array of groups and governments participating was vast, and there was much that was intelligently and plausibly encouraging – a compliment to VEF itself that so many energetic horses are generally pulling together.

This article was produced in cooperation with the organizers of the VEF