According to the World Economic Forum’s Energy Poverty Action (EPA) initiative access to energy is imperative for economic development and fundamental to improving quality of life.
Wealthy nations have demonstrated that development driven by the accumulation of income eliminates disease, reduces child mortality and increases life expectancy for adults. The key to this development is the transformation of societies from agrarian to industrial which cannot be achieved without access to energy services. As the driving force of modernity, energy poverty is intrinsically linked to world poverty.
Despite this, the developing world still bears witness to 1.3 billion people (almost 1 in 5) having no access to electricity whilst 2.9 billion use biomass energy generated from solid fuels such as wood, charcoal and coal which has a significant detrimental impact on health and the environment, for example, the inefficient burning of biomass fuels inside houses exposes people to the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes each day, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
One of the challenges in the widespread distribution of clean energy is that rural areas in developing countries are predominant and it is not practical to have hundreds of miles of transmission lines running through mountain or forest terrain to power small villages.
In addition, modern energy infrastructure such as power plants and underground pipelines to deliver natural gas and petroleum resources would require significant upfront investment and cutting-edge technology, both of which are often unavailable.
For all of the reasons outlined, it is vital that energy poverty is abolished and to achieve this, intelligent renewable energy strategies have to be developed.
The energy ladder
The energy ladder illustrates improvements in energy corresponding to an increase in household income. It features three rungs:
Basic – required for basic living standards which means cooking, heating and lighting domestically and nationally able to provide basic services linked to health and education. Without basic energy access, families cannot preserve food for refrigeration and children cannot study at night.
Productive – any additional energy required to make a living or generate business. Without productive energy access, individuals cannot earn a living, businesses cannot grow and countries cannot increase their GDP.
Leisure – when the first two are satisfied, any surplus energy is used for pursuing hobbies, personal projects and interests. Having leisure energy encourages entrepreneurship and additional learning that lift people out of poverty and increase quality of life.
Ending energy poverty empowers women and children
Energy poverty, particularly in sub-Saharan countries, harms women and children as they are forced to spend up to 20 hours a week gathering biomass and drinkable water. Much of this harvesting consumes physical energy bringing chronic fatigue to women and is so time-consuming that children are unable to go to school in order to improve their situation.
It is estimated that women and children around the world spend 200 million hours each day collecting water which is enough working for Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling 5,000 times over.
During these expeditions, women and children are also vulnerable to robbery, violence and rape and ill health.
The burning of biomass exposes them to indoor air pollution causing diseases such as acute respiratory infections, lung cancer and asthma responsible for nearly two million deaths each year according to the World Health Organisation. That’s 4% of the global burden of disease killing more people than malaria or tuberculosis.
Energy poverty has left more than one billion people without access to adequate healthcare. According to WHO, a woman dies every minute from birth-related complications.
Ending energy poverty improves education
Ninety percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa go to electricity-starved schools that lack electricity. In Burundi and Guinea, only 2% of schools are electrified, compared with 8% in the Democratic Republic of Congo meaning almost 30% in the DRC alone attending school without sufficient power.
Ending energy poverty improves development
Energy provides industries, commerce, social and public services with heat, motive power and light in order to fulfil basic human needs such as transport, education, healthcare, communication and business which have a direct effect on GDP, literacy, infant mortality, life expectancy and fertility rate.
Challenges in ending energy poverty
The infrastructure required to generate and deliver a sufficient supply of clean and adequate energy to each household, business or public service requires a staggering amount of investment but nations and even continents are beginning to understand and accept that it is necessary for their long-term benefit.
Energy poverty affected nations taking action
At the beginning of COP21, a two-week United Nations climate negotiation taking place in Paris in December 2015, African heads of state announced a mega-scale renewable energy plan, the African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI), with the aim of making Africa entirely renewable energy efficient by the year 2030.
This follows a statement made by International Energy Agency stating that Africa was at the epicentre of a global challenge to overcome energy poverty as its annual electricity consumption was 600 kWh per person, compared with the world average of 3,064 kWh.
AREI will cause a fundamental infrastructure overhaul to accelerate solar, hydro, wind and geothermal energy production over the next 15 years, whilst simultaneously reducing Africa’s reliance on coal, cut its carbon emissions and witness a downturn in air pollution. The initiative could potentially make Africa the most environmentally clean continent on the planet as a result.
Part of the plan involves developing thousands of small-scale virtual power stations that distribute electricity via mini-grids eliminating the requirement for transmission lines.
It follows the news in October 2015 that India, one of the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases plans to produce 40% of its energy from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030.
This drive towards renewables is part of a wider initiative under India’s Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) which was announced by the Union Environment Ministry which also aims to cut the “emissions intensity” of its economy – a ratio of carbon emissions per unit of GDP – by up to 35% and generate the equivalent of 3 billion tonnes of CO2 through reforestation.
Causes for ending energy poverty
Whilst the worst affected nations around the world are making huge strides to tackle energy poverty, there are simultaneous challenges predominantly from anticipated global population expansion and growing acceptance of evidence linked towards climate change.
This is why outside of government action, we have witnessed the development of more donors and charities also devoted to ending energy poverty. Below are several of those causes:
Energy for All
Energy for All is an initiative and partnership founded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 2008 which aims to develop approaches for providing access to reliable and affordable energy services, and reduce energy poverty in Asia and the Pacific.
The partnership allows entities from different sectors in the region to cooperate and build platforms for cooperation, exchange, innovation and project development by bringing together NGOs and key stakeholders from business, finance and governments to take action.
#EndEnergyPoverty is a blog devoted to the exchange of ideas on pioneering techniques to combat energy poverty, raise awareness and achieve the goal of universal access, doubling renewable energy, and doubling the improvement in energy efficiency.
The movement is organised by the World Bank Group, a United Nations-sanctioned international finance institution that provides loans to developing countries for capital programmes for the purpose of poverty reduction.
#aRaceWeMustWin is a hard-hitting short film narrated by Scarlett Johansson which delivers key facts about energy poverty and the terrible living conditions that over a billion people face every day as a result.