Holistic approach in sustainable development of renewables – dialogue, environment concerns, intersectoral synergies and public participation


April 16, 2019






April 16, 2019





At the recently held Hard Talk event in Belgrade, representatives of UNECE, Ministry of Mining and Energy of the Republic of Serbia and various stakeholders groups discussed barriers and risks that prevent more intense development of the renewable energy sector in the country but also proposed  recommendations to address those challenges. At the sidelines of the event, we  talked to Gianluca Sambucini, Secretary of the Group of Experts on Renewable Energy (GERE) at the UNECE Sustainable Energy Division, who told  us about the role of this organization in the process of energy transition, but also provided recommendations for achieving sustainable development of renewables. That development, according to Sambucini, is not in favour of trade-offs, especially when the impact on environment, local communities’s interest and sustainable resources management are concerned.

What is the role and focus of UNECE in sustainable energy transition process?

It is important to consider how energy-related work is structured within UNECE to understand its role in the transition towards a sustainable energy future. UNECE supports its 56 member States in the achievement of related sustainable energy development goal, notably SDG 7, through the intergovernmental machinery of the Committee on Sustainable Energy, the parent body of six subsidiary bodies that cover key energy areas and topics: from gas to coal mine methane, electricity systems, energy efficiency, resource management and renewable energy. One of these six subsidiary bodies is the Group of Experts on Renewable Energy (GERE) which was created in 2014, following the request of UNECE member States to deal with renewable energy matters and help them substantially increase the uptake of renewable energy.

UNECE’s Committee on Sustainable Energy is the parent body of six subsidiary bodies that cover key energy areas and topics: from gas to coal mine methane, electricity systems, energy efficiency, resource management and renewable energy

The Bureau of GERE represents a wide range of UNECE countries, from producers and exporter of fossil fuels to importer of energy sources, from those advanced in the renewable energy production to those recently adopting policies and measures towards an increase of renewable energy production and use. A special focus and attention of the GERE work is directed to the countries of South East and Eastern Europe, Caucus, Central Asia and the Russian Federation.

On a regular basis, UNECE publishes a report to track the status and main obstacles to the renewable energy development in a larger scale. Can you tell us more about it?

Together with the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century, UNECE issues the REN21 UNECE Renewable Energy Status Report which focuses on 17 selected countries of South East and Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Russian Federation. The report aims to fill data and information gap which exists in those countries by adopting the methodology used by REN21 in different global and regional reports.

This informal methodology allows to obtain data and information through a questionnaire which is sent to local stakeholders and experts in the considered countries and, at the end, information and data thus gathered allow an analysis which is very close to represent the reality.

A new REN 21 UNECE report on the status of renewables is expected to be launched at the beginning of 2020

On the data collection we are working together with local partners thus also supporting the development of their capacity, local knowledge and expertise on data gathering.

A new report is expected to  be issued at the beginning of 2020.

What are the key findings of the last REN21 UNECE report?

Among the key finding of the 2017 report, renewable energy investments decreased in the 17 countries, which are home for over 300 million people, despite a generalised global increase. In those countries there has been a decline in investments from USD 700 million in 2014 to USD 400 million in 2015. The negative trend has continued in the last couple of years, SEE included.

The decline of investments is in absolute terms but looking closely to these figures, we observe that this decline in the considered UNECE countries is partially due to decline of the cost of renewable energy technologies. Fortunately, this does not correspond to a decline in the new renewable energy installed capacity. On the contrary, there is a slight increase which is not, however, sufficient to meet their national targets and global commitments. There are issues to be resolved to revert this negative trend.

Some of UNECE member States are fossil fuel producers. In what way does UNECE support them and other member States in energy transition?

The fact that several member States are fossil fuels producers is a characteristic of UNECE indeed.

If we try to imagine the future in few generations we can foresee the world with a higher share of renewable energy in the long term, if not 100%, close to it. However, prior to this, there is a transition phase to go through. And the transition cannot completely neglect the current energy system. The substitution of fossil fuels with renewable energy or some other energy source cannot be done from one day to another.

It is difficult to predict the transition period to a new future energy system – years or decades – but a smooth, efficient and sustainable transition has to take into account of the current energy infrastructure and existing needs and interests.

We should aim to future systems which substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the energy mix.

The UN Secretary General has repeatedly stressed the need to accelerate the transition towards renewables. However, this transition will be complex and cannot ignore the differences amongst current energy systems in different countries.  It is a process which needs careful attention, although nowadays, renewable energy accounts for a third of global power capacity and nearly two-thirds of all new power generation capacity added in 2018 was from renewables.

Which country’s experience in development of renewable energy can serve as a good model in defining and bringing strategies, achieving some really good results?

For SEE, it might be useful to consider the experience in EU countries that represent both positive and negative examples. Germany is an example of a country undergoing the transition towards a steadily increase of renewable energy. However, while increasing renewable energy share in the energy mix and installed capacity, Germany has been increasing the use of coal to about 30% to load-follow, or buffer, the intermittency of renewables. It is clear that this development has not necessarily met the objective of immediately reducing Germany’s carbon emissions.

Germany is an example of a country at the forefront of an ambitious energy transition, the Energiewende, expanding renewable energy sources and working to make its economy virtually climate-neutral by 2050. This process is not exempt from obstacles and mistakes but there is no other way when the change is so important.

The lack of long-term policies represented a negative experience in some EU countries (e.g. Italy, Spain), but which offers valuable insights for increasing renewable energy investments in SEE countries. The need for long-term policies has been stressed during the Renewable Energy Hard Talk in Serbia as a key requirement for increasing renewable energy uptake in the country and probably in all SEE countries. It is essential to adopt long-term policies that setup the rules of the game to build confidence and trust in a system in which investors know what to expect for certain period of time.

Which are the three, key words would you use to describe the situation in renewable energy in SEE?

Moving, but there is an uncertainty and great potential. Or let me change the order:

Great potential. Things are moving, yet there are uncertainties. All stakeholders can work together to transform these uncertainties in certainties for the benefit of all.

When it comes to Serbia, the participants in the recently held Renewable Energy Hard Talk in Serbia have pointed out key priorities, among the proposed recommendations by the considered key risk categories, that can surely contribute to transform uncertainties in opportunities.

Among these, the recognition and acknowledgement of need for energy transition in Serbia both from politicians and population. Formal manifestation of this recognition is needed through high level policy documents.

Support for the application of an updated legal framework taking into account Serbia’s commitments on renewable energy can contribute as well.

Recognition and acknowledgement of need for energy transition in Serbia both from politician and population is a recommendation proposed by the participants of Hard Talk event in Serbia 

It would also help to continue a multi-stakeholder dialogue as well as consultations and taking due account of views and opinions, in order to facilitate the approach towards the sustainable energy transition, including related environmental considerations.

A holistic and integrated approach is needed and requires the enhancement of inter-sectoral and cross-sectoral approach with a view to nexus criteria and added societal benefit.

The entire process could be promoted by a dedicated Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Agency (including permanent a Commission on RES and an Expert Team from academia, NGOs, etc) with a mandate to promote RES awareness and advise on best policies and practices for renewables.

What can you tell us about the sustainability of hydropower sector? What is the way to continue with investments and use the potential of hydropower now when the region of SEE has been facing serious issues related to project development and implementation such as  disrespect of local legislation by some investors, jeopardizing biodiversity, not good cooperation of investors with local communities and not taking care about the interest of local people living in the vicinity?

The initial key factor is to establish a dialogue among different stakeholders which takes into account different cross-sectoral aspects related to environmental concern, water management and overall rural development.

A holistic approach and a proper dialogue with all stakeholders of a hydro power plant, with the local communities especially, can help the implementation of properly situated, designed and constructed hydro power plants, with the negative impacts minimized.

For this to happen, an adequate legal and regulatory basis (including for assessing environmental impact and ensuring public participation), policies and decision-making procedures are necessary.

The increase of renewable energy capacities should not be done at any cost: the related trade-offs have to be assessed and judged acceptability. All parties including ministries in charge, local authorities, investors, local people should reach a consensus after a consultative process in all phases to commonly recognize and include the respective benefit in the project.

How do you see the contribution of UNECE to solving some of the issues in the region?

What UNECE can do is to support national and international actors through a multi-stakeholder dialogue.  UNECE provides various instruments and tools, and intergovernmental platforms for transboundary dialogue and regional cooperation. The nexus assessment of the Drina River Basin (shared by Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) identified various actions for improved resource management and sustainability, including coordinated operation of hydropower plants, for benefits and for reduced negative impacts. There are opportunities for cooperation in renewable energy development.

Also, what came out from the recent Hard Talk in Serbia is that there is not a proper assessment of solar and wind energy potential in the country, which exists for other renewable energy types as, for example, biomass.

Determining the potential is important for investment planning but also for a structured coordination among local governments, national and local authorities, to realistically assess how far they can go with the development of the wind and solar energy.

Among the various considerations expressed at the Hard Talk, very important consideration appeared to be the allocation of the land for renewable energy projects. How this can be done? It requires a holistic and integrated approach for a sustainable rural development which has a clear understanding on the status of ongoing renewable energy projects, on how they contribute to reach goals and targets within a new future energy system, and on what is the real renewable energy potential properly assessed. Concretely, development of spatial plans needs to help optimize and to reconcile different needs for land, and the consistency of different plans (include nature protection) needs to be ensured.

The countries of the Western Balkans region could share experience more when they face similar challenges.

Applying nexus criteria seems like a perfect solution for providing sustainable platform for renewable energy development. Can you summarize?

UNECE has implemented and is implementing a number of activities and projects that are embracing a holistic perspective in developing renewable energy, in synergy with a more sustainable use of resources. As in the UNECE Drina river basin project, the water-energy-food-ecosystems nexus approach comes in with the objective of promoting coordination and integrated planning and sustainable management of interlinked resources across sectors, which are aimed to speed up the achievement of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Building on the experience, including the Renewable Energy Hard Talk held in Serbia and, before, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, UNECE Water Convention and GERE aim to develop some guidance for renewable energy developers to realize beneficial cross-sector synergies, including by diversifying financing options, and to reduce trade-offs, notably with the environment.


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