The Issue

Currently, nearly 1.2 billion people, just over 16% of the world population, have no access to electricity and around 2.7 billion people, just over 37% of the world population, are without clean cooking and heating facilities.

We follow the precedent set by the International Energy Agency and define lack of access to electricity and to clean cooking and heating facilities as lack of access to “modern energy”.

Over 95% of the people without access to modern energy are concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia and 80% of them live in rural areas. The world distribution of this energy poverty largely coincides with the world distribution of overall extreme poverty.

In 2011, the United Nations launched the “Sustainable Energy for All” (SE4All) initiative to ensure universal access to modern energy services and to double the rate of progress to improve in energy efficiency and the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix by 2030.

This drive was confirmed in 2015 with the adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s), among which is Goal number 7: “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.

The issue can be examined from various viewpoints. We have identified three main areas to focus on: social inclusion, economic development and the environment. Lack of access to modern energy is critical to each of these issues because it has a negative impact on social, economic and environmental conditions. Action in all three areas is therefore required simultaneously.

There is a very clear social problem when entire communities are deprived of basic health services and education and are without reliable access to food and water. It is difficult to imagine development without access to modern energy.

Last but not least, attempts to satisfy basic energy needs without access to modern energy can have a detrimental effect on local environments and on global climate. Policies designed to bridge the energy gap usually improve local social and economic conditions. Nevertheless, the environmental impact of energy development projects can be positive or negative, depending on the technology that is employed, and consequently they must be carefully monitored.

Social inclusion

Lack of access to modern energy has been recognized as a major social problem. Access to modern forms of energy is a necessary condition for both individual and social development.

Its benefits include lighting, “cleancooking and heating, transport, telecommunications services, increased agricultural productivity and, most of all, delivery of basic hygienic services and clean drinking water.

There is no doubt that access to energy improves the quality of life through better health services, longer life expectancy and higher quality education for children. The use of electricity can also replace or facilitate many manual activities which are time-consuming, mostly for women, and also for children. As a consequence, access to energy allows women to develop their own human and social potential and helps to empower them within families and societies.


The lack of access to energy dramatically affects and undermines people’s health. The current situation is alarming.

Despite limited access to data, it is estimated that there are approximately 1 billion people who are today served by health facilities without electricity. In India 46 % of health facilities, serving 580 million people, are without electricity, in sub-Saharan Africa more than 30 % of health facilities, serving 255 million people. Further, energy supply is often unreliable.

The lack of access to energy in the home condemns more than 2.7 billion people in the world to burning traditional biomass (wood, charcoal, animal dung) to cook with. As a consequence of inadequate ventilation and the resulting indoor air pollution they are compelled to breathe substances that are very harmful to their health. According to the World Health Organization, 4.3 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution caused by cooking fuels. This number is higher than from malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS combined.

The International Energy Agency estimates that if governments do not take strong action the problem will persist and get worse in the long term. While the people without access to electricity is expected to decline slightly by 2030 (from 1.2 to 0.8 billion), the number of people without access to modern cooking and heating fuel is expected to decline even more slowly (from 2.7 to 2.3 billion).

Access to modern energy sources and clean cooking methods improves people’s health and supports progress towards Sustainable Development Goal 3: “Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages



Energy poverty is an obstacle to education. Thousands of pupils all over the developing world go to schools that do not have access to electricity.


The installation of modern energy infrastructures in schools, both to provide a general power supply and to cook food healthily, helps to narrow the education gap between urban and rural areas. Electrification can help rural schools attract teachers who are unwilling to work in remote areas with no electricity and communication facilities.


Access to light means that school children can study longer and that teachers have more time to prepare their lessons. Electricity allows information and communication technology to be used in education and it gives access to the internet, which is essential for high quality education in today’s digital age. Lastly access to modern energy reduces cooking time and improves the quality of the food prepared at the schools.


Access to energy therefore contributes to the Sustainable Development Goal 4: “Ensure inclusive and quality education for all and promote lifelong learning”.  


Gender equality

A large percentage of women and girls in developing countries are burdened with the tasks of collecting firewood, carrying water, grinding grain, producing homemade food and carrying out other domestic chores. Public and private institutions in all countries should play their part to help empower women, by introducing modern energy sources and by providing better tools such as more efficient biomass stoves and grain mills.

Access to energy greatly reduces the burden of collecting firewood and water, and is thus a fundamental condition for the empowerment of women in poor countries and for ensuring that girls have access to education programmes in order to develop their skills and overall potential.

Access to energy may therefore contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 5:Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls”.  

Economic development

L’accesso ai servizi energetici è uno stimolo primario fondamentale per la crescita occupazionale e l’aumento di reddito. L’approvvigionamento idrico, la filiera alimentare, le comunicazioni, l’istruzione e la maggior parte delle attività produttive necessitano di accesso alle forme moderne di energia.

La distribuzione del consumo di energia nel mondo è estremamente sbilanciata. Il 40% più povero della popolazione mondiale dispone soltanto del 10% del reddito globale e del consumo finale di energia. La disuguaglianza è ancora maggiore riguardo al consumo di elettricità. Questo rappresenta non solo un ostacolo alla crescita economica, ma anche la causa di una sistematica ineguaglianza tra regioni del mondo.

L’accesso all’energia moderna è quindi un requisito fondamentale per la crescita economica dei paesi sottosviluppati. La costruzione di infrastrutture energetiche in Stati dove i prestiti per l’investimento non possono essere ripagati e dove la manutenzione a lungo termine non può essere garantita rappresenta quindi un ulteriore ostacolo all’accesso universale all’energia moderna. Inoltre, mentre alcuni di questi paesi meno sviluppati possiedono grandi quantità di risorse energetiche, le loro popolazioni spesso hanno accesso limitato (o non ce l’hanno affatto) alle stesse risorse.

Un consumo sostenibile e responsabile delle risorse energetiche può servire quindi come spinta per accrescere la ricchezza di questi paesi, migliorare gli standard di vita delle loro popolazioni e nel lungo periodo, ridurre la disuguaglianza.

La stime della AIE prevedono una crescita della domanda di energia a livello mondiale del 30% entro il 2040, con un aumento del consumo di tutti i combustibili moderni, ed in particolar modo di quello elettrico, che aumenterà dell’80%. La geografia dei consumi energetici continuerà a spostarsi verso i paesi più industrializzati ed urbanizzati (India, Cina, alcune regioni dell’Asia e dell’Africa); ma più di mezzo miliardo di persone, concentrate principalmente nelle aree rurali dell’Africa sub-Sahariana, sarà ancora senza elettricità nel 2040;stima comunque inferiore rispetto al’1,2 miliardi dello scenario attuale.



Employment and decent working conditions are the main routes people follow to escape poverty.

The importance of private sector-led growth is critical to the achievement of SDGs and the access to sustainable energy is key to growth, employment and competitiveness.

Large populations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, live, and will continue to live for the foreseeable future, far from the reach of a power grid, but this should not mean they must be denied access to electricity. Effective off-grid solutions exist, which could allow people to improve their lives with direct results in terms of local employment.

Access to energy can therefore greatly contribute to Sustainable Development Goal 8: "Promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all".

Productive activities

Most developing countries still face great limitations of electricity supply, especially in rural areas. Even when a connection to the grid exists, supply is often insufficient and intermittent. This is a serious obstacle to economic development and affects productivity greatly, especially for small and medium-sized businesses, which predominate in rural areas.

Great efforts are therefore needed to improve access to reliable and affordable electricity supplies and to reduce power outages, a major cause of low productivity.

Many governments of less developed countries have not been able to construct the energy infrastructures needed, often due to the high expense. Funding infrastructures requires stable institutions, international cooperation and resistance to internal corruption. Countries rich in natural resources could, and should, make use of the resources gained from exports as a driver to increase employment and the living standards of the people, reducing inequality in the long term.

Financing energy

The flow of investment necessary to provide universal access to electricity by 2030 has been estimated by the International Energy Agency in 2011 at a level of around 50 billion US dollars per year, the majority of it in sub-Saharan Africa. Actual investment to expand electricity services was seen as gradually growing from 9 billion US dollars in 2009 to an average of 14 billion US dollars in 2030, well below what is necessary.

At the time, total world investment in electricity infrastructure was estimated to reach 1.6 trillion a year and to be gradually rising (IEA, World Energy Outlook 2014). This implies that the indicated yearly flow of 50 billion US dollars would be equivalent to only about 3% of the global yearly investment in electricity infrastructure over the period to 2030.

In order to entice a growth of private sector investment, national governments need to adopt strong governance and regulatory frameworks, and invest in internal capacity building. The public sector, including multilateral and bilateral institutions, should leverage greater private sector investment and encourage the development of scalable business models.

Other tools that have proven to provide positive results include government subsidies, which are carefully designed to target the poorest and most vulnerable sections of the population. Subsidies must be used with much caution in order to achieve the desired results and not distort the market. Another useful tool is microfinance, where credit organizations provide small loans to businesses and homeowners to invest in modern energy technology.

Access to clean cooking facilities requires far lower levels of investment, and may also benefit from microfinance and innovative business models.

Energy production and infrastructure

Availability and reliability of energy infrastructures are necessary to any country for developing the economy, increasing productivity and providing citizens with education and health services.

Moreover, energy resources in Africa are concentrated in just a few countries, some of which have not been able to fully develop them. Furthermore, physical and financial barriers to cross-border trade prevent energy exports from reaching countries in need. 

The construction of decentralized renewable energy infrastructures, especially solar power, can provide access to energy in remote areas that are difficult to reach and allow the inhabitants to escape from extreme poverty. Infrastructures of this type can also deliver substantial benefits in terms of reduced mortality and improvements in health. Investment in energy infrastructure must therefore focus not only on grid extension and traditional fossil fuels, but also on decentralized mini-grids mainly powered by renewable sources.

Environmental preservation

Power generation is one of the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions. The paradox is that while populations in many poor countries suffer most from lack of access to energy, they are also suffering increasingly from climate change caused by choices made in other parts of the world. Climate change is a global problem that requires global solutions.

Access to modern energy can be expanded by the very same actions that help mitigate the risk of climate change.

One example is the diffusion of clean cooking facilities. Not only does it benefit the health of large populations, but it will also help curb the unsustainable use of firewood and relieve pressure on the environment, by reducing deforestation and subsequent soil erosion.

Another example is the reduction of gas flaring, and its negative impact on global and local environments, which can be achieved by investment in gas-fired generating plants and networks to distribute electricity locally.

Energy production from renewable sources plays an important role in ensuring environmentally friendly development in many countries. However, some initiatives for the exploitation of renewable energy sources, such as large hydro-electric projects, may raise problems with respect to the local environment.

Mitigation of climate change

Greater use of fossil fuels (mainly to generate electricity) and land use changes (including deforestation) are increasing the quantities of greenhouse gases (GHGs) emitted into the earth’s atmosphere. As a consequence, the world’s climate is changing and will continue to change throughout the present century at rates projected to be unprecedented in recent human history.

Poor countries are not large contributors to climate change, yet they suffer the most severe effects of it. Paradoxically, sub-Saharan Africa is a major exporter of fossil fuels and suffers from energy poverty.

In order to meet increases in energy demand, it is fundamental that national and international policies promote new generation mainly from renewable resources rather than from fossil fuels, as has been done in the past. New initiatives should avoid replicating the methods and technologies of the past.

In this scenario, strong public and private sector support is needed, as well as new governance models, to help developing countries and “economies in transition” to move toward low-carbon energy development. Mitigation action can mean using new technologies and renewable energies, making older equipment more energy efficient, changing management practices and consumer behavior. It can be as complex as a plan for a new city, or as simple as improving the design of a cooking stove.

Adaptation to climate change

Climate change will make ongoing social and economic challenges even more difficult, especially for those parts of societies that are dependent on resources which are sensitive to changes in climate. Risks are apparent in agriculture, fisheries and many other areas that provide a livelihood for rural populations in developing countries. These populations are highly vulnerable and have specific adaptation needs.

A well-planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives later.

Concerted global action may enable developing countries to adapt to the effects of climate change that are happening now and will become worse in the future. Adaptation will require more resilient infrastructure, more climate-resilient technologies and new agricultural practices to counter the increased climate risks.

Biomass, land use and natural resources preservation

Around 2.7 billion people in the world rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking and heating, with negative consequences for human health and the environment. More than half the population of developing Asia (over 1.8 billion people) and around 80% of people in sub-Saharan Africa (nearly 700 million people) live without clean cooking facilities. Rural households rely on firewood, which is often the only fuel available, for nearly all their cooking needs, while urban households have increasingly turned to charcoal, often produced with very inefficient methods.

Where no better substitutes can be found to the combustion of biomass for energy purposes, it should be brought to higher levels of efficiency and combined with advanced, sustainable forest management policies. Agro-forestry activities may indeed generate higher income in rural areas. In some cases, energy crops may provide an opportunity for the introduction of sustainable land use practices, instead of representing a threat to subsistence farming and to food crops.

Renewable energy sources may exert a strong impact on the local environment. As an example, large hydro generation plants may divert water resources and damage the surrounding natural environment. In some cases, however, new local opportunities can be created by combining hydroelectricity with more efficient water management practices.