February 28, 2022
Episode #9 Sudeshna Ghosh Banerjee: Decarbonization is a Very Long Game
By Sudeshna Ghosh Banerjee, Katie Auth, Rose Mutiso

Banerjee, practice manager in the Energy and Extractives Global Practice at the World Bank Group, talks with Katie and Rose about whether net zero makes sense for Africa, what development organizations get wrong about energy access & women, and why hydrogen could be the next solar.

Sudeshna Ghosh Banerjee is a Practice Manager in the Africa region in Energy and Extractives Global Practice at the World Bank. She has worked on energy and infrastructure issues in the South Asia, Middle East and North Africa, and Africa departments in both operations and analytic assignments. She focuses on project economics, monitoring and evaluation, and on a broad range of energy sector issues including energy access, energy subsidies, renewable energy, and sector assessments. She holds a PhD in Public Policy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and MA and BA degrees in Economics from Delhi University.

Show Notes

Amped Up

Sudeshna Interview



KATIE: I’m Katie Auth in Washington.

ROSE: And I’m Rose Mutiso in London, and this is High Energy Planet, the podcast from the Energy for Growth Hub about new ideas to solve global energy poverty.

KATIE: On today’s show does net zero make sense for Africa? We talk with Sudeshna Ghosh Banerjee, practice manager in the Energy and Extractives Global Practice at the World Bank Group. She’s an expert on energy an infrastructure issues in both central Asia and east Africa.

ROSE: We’ll also ask Sudeshna about what development organizations get wrong about energy access and women, and the one energy or tech issue not enough people are talking about.

KATIE: But first Rose and I get amped up about COP26 and what it meant for energy poverty.

ROSE: All that coming up on this episode of High Energy Planet.


KATIE: Now it’s time for Amped Up, when Rose and I talk about what we can’t stop thinking about right now in the energy and development space. And this week since we’re recording just before Thanksgiving we’re both still obsessing, for better and I’m sure for worse, about COP26. So Rose, what was your high point from the COP?

ROSE: Yeah Katie, I would say my high point was definitely seeing African countries really step up, advocating really passionately and boldly for their positions and rights. And this included high-profile op-eds and remarks from heads of states ranging from Buhari in Nigeria to Chakwera in Malawi, and just negotiators leading the charge on a number of African priorities. So this includes ideas around agency–you know, respect our priorities, respect our development goals, we have a right to flexibility and how we manage our energy transitions–to, you know, really see the importance on support for adaptation, financing for losses and damages, and that kind of thing. And so I think historically we see maybe in the development world group African counties have been a little bit behind the pack. And it was really exciting to see them come to the forefront and say, “This is our position, this is what we want.” What about you, Katie, what was your high point?

KATIE: Yeah, so my high point, in addition to the African agency that you’re talking about, which I agree was incredible to see, I thought that the announcement about a potential deal to accelerate coal-decommissioning in South Africa is still a huge TBD. But I do think that it’s a positive thing that there’s so much effort and kind of financial creativity going into thinking about how we can deploy tools to take coal offline faster, especially where it’s already economically uncompetitive and causes a host of really terrible problems for local populations. And I think the really challenging aspect is going to be making sure that that’s done in a way that incorporates all of the just transition stuff that you and I always talk about, but also making sure that taking coal offline doesn’t harm the other journey that these power systems are trying to make to reach stability and maintain services for people. And it’s such a delicate balancing act that any decommissioning plan is going to have to take on. But I’m excited to see so much attention going to it.

ROSE: Definitely me, too. And, you know, we often talk about how South Africa is an outlier when it comes to energy and climate in sub-Saharan African. It’s the most – all the coal – all the emissions. And so it’s exciting to think that it can be an outlier for all the right reasons and kind of lead the way for how other countries in Africa and around the world can kind of manage a just transition that’s equitable, and fair, and creates opportunities. So definitely watching that space.

KATIE: What was your low point?

ROSE: Oh my goodness [LAUGHTER]. How to summarize the long list of low points? I would just say, you know, all the advocacy not withstanding that was my high point, I think in terms of actual outcomes there was really nothing for Africa. All of the things that we really care about, especially around climate financing for adaptation, kind of real concrete acknowledgement of this losses-and-damages concept and putting money behind it, you know, wanting to see real legitimate decarbonization plans from rich countries so that they can shield us a little bit from the many climate impacts–across all of these and many others we just – we didn’t see any concrete outcomes. We didn’t see any successes. And so that was definitely a real low point. There’s possibly some hope that Egypt next year, which will be an African COP, will bring these issues to the forefront. But it was a little bit depressing, especially going in with so much energy as we did.

KATIE: Yeah.

ROSE: What about you, Katie? What was your low point?

KATIE: My low point is related to that I guess. I think there was a lot of buzz about all of the pledges you saw from countries like the U.K., the U.S., and China, and they were all focused on limiting public finance for fossil fuels overseas. And I think what that misses is that it’s an easy, shiny way for rich countries to say something that sounds really ambitious and really big, but ultimately it’s a regressive approach that, you know, is going to impact the poorest countries the most because they’re the only ones that depend on public finance from development institutions for investment and power generation. And so I don’t want us to be sucked in by the high-sounding pledges and get distracted from A, like what the impacts of that will actually be in the world’s poorest economies, but B, the fact that those countries aren’t making that same type of ambitious pledge for their own domestic energy sectors. So I think watching that interplay will be crucial going forward.

ROSE: Completely agree. Maybe next year we should show up at the Egypt COP with matching T-shirts, like, “Stop scapegoating poor countries,” or something. Okay, let’s work on it. We have a year to work on our (inaudible) T-shirt [LAUGHTER] tagline. Okay, so maybe we can crowdsource some suggestions, but…

KATIE: I love it.

ROSE: …completely agree with you.

KATIE: If you have an energy or development obsession, good or bad, tweet it to us at @EnergyforGrowth and we’ll include it in an upcoming episode. Coming up, we talk with Sudeshna Ghosh Banerjee about central Asian energy ambitions and if a net zero framework even makes sense for the African context.


KATIE: Hey Sudeshna, welcome to High Energy Planet, it’s so great to have you here.

SUDESHNA: Thank you very much, Katie, thank you for having me.

KATIE: Of course, yeah, we’re excited. We want to dive right in. I know that you grew up in India where you witnessed firsthand the everyday realities and the impacts of energy poverty. And now you’re a senior leader at the World Bank. I’m curious whether you think your firsthand experience with energy poverty impacts the way that you approach your work. Does it differentiate you and the kinds of questions you ask from analysts who don’t have that same background?

SUDESHNA: Very much so. You know, World Bank is a multilateral institution and there are a lot of people from various parts of the world. And you realize that colleagues who have come from developed countries where energy was always there, and there’s 24-by-7 electricity compared to those of us who never saw 24-by-7 electricity. In fact, in India it’s only probably ten years ago that the question of 24-by-7 electricity came up much more on a programmatic level. But before that it was just to reach people with electricity. That itself was the basic goal. And as a result of that when we work on our countries and, you know, World Bank worlds on many countries around the world, we approach the issue saying that, my God, this is important for the survival of the people, because that’s where you look at. And at the same time, you know, a lot of the colleagues who come in more from the developed-country point of view, they don’t see it from the point of view of households, how it impacts them, because they always had electricity. But you think about it much more from the point of economy and the way it drives industries and commercial enterprises as well.

ROSE: I really love that response, it really resonates with me growing up in Nairobi, very similar circumstances. I often hear these days about backup generators, but I’ve never thought of a kerosene lamp as a backup. That’s exactly what I had growing up, so I feel a little bit more sophisticated for my backup kerosine lamp. Okay, so moving on a little bit. So development organizations often talk about how their work in energy supports women. What do they get wrong? I hope it’s not too cynical of a question.

KATIE: That’s a really interesting question. You know, and any dimension that the World Bank does, or any development financier, that includes beneficiaries (means) half are women, you know, by the design, right, half are women. (Currently) what you realize is that women sometimes have very specific needs and it requires very specific efforts. So for example, in the countries where you can measure female-headed households you see that they’re more vulnerable and may not be able to afford an electricity connection. In some countries you can’t even measure female-headed households, as such a concept doesn’t exist. In the World Bank we have become more conscious and considerate of gender implications, and we have devised various ways of reaching women both from the demand-side perspective–essentially women who demand energy services and how do you make sure that you create interventions that reach them–and also from the supply side, essentially supporting women’s entry, retention, and mentoring in largely male-dominated utilities and energy sector agencies. Now we have set up a number of programs in various utilities (inaudible) agencies to make sure that women actually join the pipeline. You can’t have women in female leadership positions unless you encourage young women to enter the pipeline and support them through their entire career, and so that they stay on in the business rather than move away. And that is from the supply side. We also support from the demand side from women as energy consumers. What do they want; what do they need? You talked about Nairobi, and I have worked in Kenya for many years. We had a slum-electrification program. There were a lot of slum areas in Kenya – in Nairobi did not have electricity connections. And we legalized those electricity connections as part of a slum-electrification program of Kenya (inaudible) that the World Bank supported. And you realized that women actually took up a lot of small enterprises, you know, for (braiding) and for other small enterprises, and they used energy to generate income. And it was fascinating to see how energy could actually change women’s lives in that context.

ROSE: Okay. I like your push to answering the question by pointing out in your work at the World Bank what you learned and got right. So it’s kind of you – you reframed it in terms of (you started) doing the right things, and I like that approach. So women as energy-users, not just in the home, but through their enterprises, and women as decision-makers. I do agree that we don’t often see that, so I’m really glad that your work has incorporated this element.

KATIE: Yeah. I think even in the relatively short time that I’ve been in this space it’s been exciting to see more and more of the funders kind of moving away from women as just consumers and looking at the pipeline and the workforce issues that Sudeshna, you just talked about. So that’s great.

ROSE: I’ll also add I just moved to London recently, and I’m struggling to find someone to braid my hair. So if you have [LAUGHTER] – I’m very envious of the women braiding hair in Nairobi with their legalized electric connections.

KATIE: So Sudeshna, here’s a question that we love to ask almost all of our guests, which is what’s the one energy issue–it can be policy-related or tech-related–that you think not enough people are talking about?

SUDESHNA: Yeah. In Nairobi we have (inaudible) issues–one from a very policy issues, another is from a technology side. The first is transition out of coal. This is a multidimensional problem, as there are many local areas in various parts of the world which are coal regions. Essentially everything – the economy is completely dependent on the coal mines, right? All the jobs in those areas are also dependent on these coal mines. So any closure or repurposing of these minds means addressing the local economy and the people who are associated with it. So in the World Bank, for example, we are – experts are coming together from different disciplines. Because you can’t just look at it as an energy problem, because it’s also a social problem as well, yeah? And social protection, social development, environment, poverty, energy, and people of different disciplines come together to think about it in a much more coherent and collective manner. And this is – I really want to sort of emphasize this when we talk about coal transition. It is so difficult and so politically-sensitive as well. And we are not talking enough about that political sensitives as well as the social dimensions of transition out of coal. So that’s number one. The second is in terms of technology, I would say hydrogen. This is something that we are pretty excited about. Hydrogen is where solar was a decade ago. Nobody would have imagined that (inaudible), ten years ago if you had told me I would not have believed it. This is where hydrogen is right now. There’s a lot of excitement about what hydrogen could potentially do. And when we look at the decarbonization pathways of countries hydrogen is going to play a role, specifically in developed countries and in countries where there’s a lot of gas networks as well. We believe of course that hydrogen is going to be cost-competitive in a few years, and it can play an important role in decarbonization pathways. I really think that the NDCs, you know, the Nationally Determined Contributions, the pathways towards net zero, hydrogen is going to be an important… But I also like the fact that there are different colors of hydrogen. There’s pink, and turquoise, and green, and blue. But it doesn’t matter, whatever the colors may be, it is all going to be supportive of a lower-carbon future.

KATIE: Yeah – no, that’s great. And I know Rose is a hydrogen enthusiast as well. But I’m curious, do you foresee kind of a relatively near-term opportunity for hydrogen in emerging economies as well, or is it mostly limited to the developed world?

SUDESHNA: Actually in both. You know, and I have been surprised that even in African the (inaudible) counterparts are talking about it. And in Europe and central Asia where I currently work there’s a lot of interest. In fact, this is something that is very much interwoven now in our policy dialogue in many of our countries, where whenever you are thinking of how to diversify your energy mix, how to decarbonize into lower-carbon resources, hydrogen is coming into the discussion. But mostly the countries are also not only talking about it from the technology point of view, but they’re also talking about it from a commercial point of view–how much is for domestic, how much would you sell…? You know, those are all the questions that are coming up as well, and which we are focusing on. It’s going to be a long road. It’s not going to be tomorrow that hydrogen is suddenly cost-competitive. But definitely it’s a very promising technology that we should focus on.

ROSE: This is great. I think you’re the first person in the history of the podcast that’s mentioned hydrogen, so you get a gold star.

KATIE: Rose has been waiting.

ROSE: I know [LAUGHTER]. And I’m surprised that you’re pleased with the rainbow of hydrogen colors, because there’s a lot of debate about excluding everything but the green – the greenest of green. And so do you see hydrogen as maybe connecting up in some way with what you – your other point on coal and transitions for communities all over the world that rely on fossils? Do you see this other [quote, unquote] lesser colors as playing a role in that?

SUDESHNA: Absolutely. And in fact, as you know, the blue part is related to the gas, and then pink part is related to the nuclear, and the green part is related to the (inaudible), you know? And of course all of these will be important. All of these technologies are going to be important in their own way. And we have to always think about it from the local context. Every country is different, and every country will have its own decarbonization pathway. And what is important in one country is not going to be important in others. And in some countries it may not be possible to leapfrog into green hydrogen tomorrow. They might have to go through a process of blue hydrogen and then think about green hydrogen. In some countries maybe you can immediately go into green hydrogen. So every kind of (analytic) support is needed to see what kind of pathway is possible and then focus on developing that.


ROSE: Coming up, we’ll ask Sudeshna what Africa can learn from energy transitions in Asia.

ROSE: So Sudeshna, your energy work has quite an impressive global footprint, including central Asia of all places. Now, central Asia is both a major consumer and producer of fossil fuels, especially for European export. Yet we don’t hear about these countries much in conversations about the energy transition. What’s the one big thing energy and climate enthusiasts should know about this region?

SUDESHNA: Central Asia is a mix of countries. You know, you have Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan on one hand, and you also have Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan on the other. The former group of countries is (very) rich of fossil-fuel based primarily. And the latter are hydro-dominated. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan are hydro-dominated. There’s a lot of potential of regional trade. The other thing that I’m very passionate about is regional energy trade. This can really help in decarbonizing the entire energy system of central Asian countries. In fact, I think the potential of renewable energy (scale-up), energy efficiencies, is enormous. And we’re actively supporting the government in doing so. In fact, in Uzbekistan we are helping the government to pilot a solar program. We call it “Scaling Solar” because all the three agencies of the World Bank, it is a combined effort from World Bank, IFC, and MIGA to come together to provide all kinds of risk-mitigation instruments to help these kinds of solar projects. And it has attracted some of the premier redevelopers, renewable-energy developers, and very low prices – option prices. So the market is responding very well, and the governments have similar ambitions in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to diversify energy mix. And you talked about the ambitions. In fact, the scope has been quite exciting because many of these countries have set net zero targets as well. So you will hear more and more about central Asian countries, especially Kazakhstan, which is one of the largest (inaudible). But you have to remember that central Asia still remains a poor part of Asia compared to other parts of Europe. So if I look at the countries that I cover, Europe is on one side, central Asia is another, in terms of the poverty (inaudible). See, if we look at the country (inaudible) Africa to global emissions, as you all know it’s very small – still very small. The challenge in Africa at this point is also an adaptation, not just on the mitigation part, but adaptation, how will Africa really adapt to impacts of climate change. The mitigation part is important because the huge energy needs remain unmet. 600 million people still do not have electricity, and the economies are still growing. So there’s going to be a lot of energy that is going to be needed over the next few decades. The question is how will Africa develop its energy systems now to meet the growing demand? And that’s really the question for Africa.

KATIE: Yeah. I’m glad you took your answer in that direction. And I’m also glad that you brought up regional integration and trade. Because I know when you were in east Africa that was obviously a huge element of your work, and it’s a huge potential unlocker of renewable capacity. But I’m curious, like, if we think forward to 2050, say, what’s the one most important way in which you think east Africa’s energy system will look different than central Asia’s.

SUDESHNA: Thanks a lot. I mean, if I’m gazing into the future, yeah, given the size of energy systems in Africa, you know, the regional energy trade can play a very, very important role in decarbonizing the energy systems and making it more affordable. Because we have to think about it both from lower carbon energy as well as lower cost energy. Both of them are important in the context of Africa and central Asia, both, yeah. And I hope the (inaudible) in Africa, there are four, will all be functional in creating electricity by 2050. I will be very engaged in east Africa (inaudible), which still remains quite nascent. And there’s no trading of electricity yet, in fact this platform is being set up so that electricity can be traded. I hope there are more decentralized solutions to harness local renewable energy and standalone renewable energy solutions for households. The goal to reach universal electrification is 2030. As you know, it’s part of the (inaudible) goal. And we hope that that is achieved. But Africa is a growing continent, as I mentioned earlier, and how the needs are (to be) met of served and unserved consumers is going to be key. So it really depends on how Africa today develops its energy systems to meet the needs of 2030, 2040, 2050. That’s really the key at this point. And so we are working with a number of clients on the (inaudible) development plan on overall energy system planning. And this is really where the questions come in that how do you develop your energy systems now so that they can meet your needs in the future?

ROSE: One thing that I’m very curious about–so now taking the slice of central Asia that has a lot of fossil-dependence, both as users and exporters–a number of African countries, including in east Africa, we have, you know, new fossil finds, and there’s a lot of I think excitement about what this could mean for revenues, including for local energy needs. And so with a decarbonization frame what do these futures look like for the Kazakhstans of the world, and then later on the Ugandas and Mozambiques and whatnots that are also kind of just getting on the fossil production and export ladder?

SUDESHNA: So in Uganda as you know there’s a lot of hydro, so their energy mix is quite renewable. In Kazakhstan, as you mentioned, it’s very much a fossil-fuel-dependent country, and so is Uzbekistan. But we already see a lot of efforts now going into more renewable energy production as well as an energy efficiency. I really feel that energy efficiency – people say it’s a low-hanging fruit. It’s not so much of a low-hanging fruit, but it’s definitely a fruit worth picking. And it’s important that we focus on energy efficiency, because energy intensity in some of these central Asian countries are very high. Because the prices are often low, so as a result of that, you know, when the prices are low you consume a lot of electricity and energy. So the question is how do you work also on the pricing signals? So we are working on a lot of countries to develop the (tariff) systems so that the prices provide more efficient signals for people to consume less energy. In addition to that we have a number of energy-efficiency programs in various kinds of buildings–on residential buildings, commercial buildings, public buildings–so that the energy consumption is reduced. So there’s a lot going on in central Asia really to decarbonize the entire region to moving into a much more lower-carbon future. But the focus on regional I really want to emphasize. Because it’s such a nice collection of countries where there is a huge amount of hydro potential in Kyrgyzstan and in Tajikistan. And on the other hand you have a lot of fossil-fuel-dependent countries. If the countries trade with each other you can actually get a pretty nice healthy mix of energy in the future.

KATIE: Sudeshna, I am curious, like, as a senior World Bank leader you go into these countries. And let’s make it a hypothetical country that’s doing what it can on the renewables and energy-efficiency side to address critical energy needs, but is also, as Rose alluded to, kind of thinking about developing fossil exports for the first time as a broader economic strategy. What do you advise those leaders as they think about their fossil fuel resources?

SUDESHNA: Yeah, I think it’s a very important question and it’s not a straightforward answer. Because every country will have to think about its own pathway, yeah? And one is a technical part of looking at things, and the other is also the political economic way of looking at things. And our job as the World Bank, and a lot of other financiers, we come in to try to see if we can help the countries, you know, bring it together, not only from a technical point of view, but also what is feasible for that country at that very moment. And also help to look at the future. Because some of these decisions that you are taking, a lot of the political decisions are taken with a very short timeframe. But, you know, the decarbonization is a very long game. So how do you help the countries look at the long game rather than the short game? That is really where we come in. And we also think about alternatives. How do you just not think of what is possible immediately? How do you think about what is possible over a period of time? And it might have large- or short-term cost, but it might have larger benefits over time. So our job is also to look at various options that the countries can take and help make the (pros and cons decisions) so that you look at it much more from a longer point of view, even if there can be short-term costs.

ROSE: Speaking of decarbonization long-game, India’s (2070) net zero pledge caused quite a stir during COP26, garnering both praise and criticism. What can African learn from India’s approach to balancing developing and climate and setting their net zero emissions trajectory? And does a net zero frame even make sense for the African context?

SUDESHNA: You know, in the African context, as I was mentioning earlier, there’s just so much of unmet demand. India has also been facing an access challenge, and ten years ago the access challenge in India was quite substantial. But thanks to a huge effort from the government in putting in a lot of budgetary sources, as well as creating opportunities for the private sector to come in and participate in the access paradigm, India’s access challenge is a lot more manageable now than it was ten years ago. But Africa it’s not so. The access challenge remains really front-and-center. And that’s why it’s important to think about how do you meet this unmet demand? Because it’s really – you do not know how much demand will come in. You can make lots of assumptions, but you know that 600 million people still do not have electricity. In addition to that remember the urbanization patterns in Africa are very high. The (fertility) rates in Africa are very high, so the population is growing a really, really fast (rate). So the access is really to – you have to increase by so much just to stay still, because the population is growing at such a fast pace. So when we talk about net zero, to some extent where Africa is right now it doesn’t make that much of sense, because its contribution to the emissions is very small. But we have to always think about Africa in the context of what needs to be done over the next few decades in terms of meeting the energy needs of the population, but also at the same time ensuring that it’s done in a low-carbon manner.

ROSE: Completely agree with that take. And it’s very tough to hold the two Africas in your mind at the same time–the Africa now versus the Africa that could be decades from now. I’m glad and I hope that this is being integrated in your work at the World Bank, trying to balance these two realities. So you’ve had an incredibly impressive career as a practice manager at the World Bank while raising small kids and prioritizing family. What advice would you give to women who are starting their journeys in building both family and career? And for this question Katie and I are both asking for a friend [LAUGHTER].

SUDESHNA: No, thanks for asking this question. I know when I started – my older daughter is now 15 years-old, and my younger daughter is 11 years-old. And when I started in the World Bank as a young professional, as soon as I joined as a young professional I also became a mother. So my journey as a (staff) in the World Bank has absolutely synchronized with my journey as a mother. And at that time I did not have that many role models of women who had sort of strong careers and at the same time had children – small children. So it was a little bit of trying to figure it out as I went along. But two things that I will sort of proudly mention, one is that it’s important to focus on both. You know, it’s not a priority that – this is a priority right now, this is a priority tomorrow. It’s not like that. Everything is a priority at that very moment. But you have to almost think about today what is important and tomorrow what is important. You have to sort of constantly ask yourself that question. And it’s sometimes very exhausting to do so, but that is the only way I sort of survived, that today I have to focus on this meeting, and I need to get that done. But tomorrow I have my parent-teacher meeting in my child’s school and that is important. Or sometimes I have done a really crazy thing of, you know, getting out of the office and going to my daughter’s piano recital in school or some kind of – or volleyball practice, or something like that, just so that she could see that I was there, you know? And then go back to the office again. So I have done a lot of these crazy things because you have to prioritize both. And that’s also important to show my daughters, that it’s possible to have a career and have a family life as well. Because I just think that women should also support each other and show the way as well. So that has been quite important for me in my journey, that to reach out to other women and ask for help – it doesn’t hurt to ask for help. I have been in situations that sometimes my kids, you know, their daycare was closed or something like that. So I brought them over to my office for a couple of hours and I asked a colleague to look after them while I went on a meeting. So we women also need to look out for each other in our journey as mothers and professionals.

ROSE: Sudeshna, thanks so much for being with us on High Energy Planet. We really enjoyed our chat and we look forward to hearing more from you in the future.


ROSE: That’s it for today’s show. High Energy Planet is a production of the Energy for Growth Hub, an energy solutions connector matching policymakers with evidenced-based pathways to a high-energy future for everyone. Find out more at and tweet your questions and thoughts to us at @EnergyforGrowth.

KATIE: If you liked today’s episode be sure to rate and rank the podcast and tell a friend about us. Bob Lalasz is our executive producer, Gray Johnson is our senior producer. Join us next time for more High Energy Planet.




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