The Issue

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,“clean” cooking and heatingtransport, 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.

Health

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

Despite limited access to data, Practical Action in their annual publication “The Poor Peoples Energy Outlook 2013” estimates that there are approximately 1 billion people who are today served by health facilities without electricity. Furthermore, energy supply for many clinics that are considered to have energy access is in fact highly unreliable and therefore not dependable. 

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, 2.6 million people die prematurely every year due to household air pollution caused by cooking fuels. 

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 just under 1 billion today to 650 million), the number of people without access to modern cooking and heating fuel is expected to decline even more slowly (from 2.7 to 2.2 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

Education

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, reduces cooking time and improves the quality of the food prepared at the schools as well as helps to narrow the education gap between urban and rural areas. Access to modern energy, (electricity and clean cooking) can help rural schools attract better teachers who are unwilling to work in remote areas with no electricity, communication facilities and clean cooking 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. 

Access to energy 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 responsible for the majority of the domestic chores such as collecting firewood, carrying water, grinding grain, producing homemade food etc. 

Access to energy greatly reduces the chore 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.

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

Economic development

Energy access alone is probably not enough to trigger economic development, but it is difficult to imagine economic development without access to modern energy. Energy is not an end product in itself, yet it is essential for most products and services associated with development.

Access to energy is a primary input for an increase of employment and productivity and therefore also for income. Water supplies, food processing, communications, education and most production activities are all greatly facilitated with access to modern forms of energy supply.

A sustainable and responsible use of energy resources can act as a driver to increase the wealth of these countries and the living standards of their people and reduce inequality in the long term.

The paradox being that most of the less developed countries own large quantities of energy sources (both fossil fuel and renewable energy), and yet the people of these countries have little or no access to these resources and hence the economies are stagnating.

The construction and maintenance of energy infrastructures is key to developing energy infrastructure that meets the needs of the population. Strong policies supported by transparent energy planning is fundamental to attract the investments needed to build and maintain such energy infrastructure. The business climate must attract both private and public players in order to meet the energy access needs of the whole population, even the lowest demands from the most remote areas. 

  

Employment

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

In developing countries where a majority of the population live in rural areas, it is fundamental for small and medium-sized businesses to create much needed jobs and income that will be the way out of poverty for many. The agricultural business has in the past provided the only employment opportunity for rural populations, but the jobs are increasingly hard to obtain and often only provide a seasonal income. Growth and expansion of small and medium-sized businesses are necessary for economic development and are greatly facilitated by a number of key factors like road infrastructure, access to markets and access to enegy. 

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.

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. This must include both on and off-grid solutions and requires both public and private engagement and investments.

Financing energy

According to the International Energy Agency, the current yearly investment in electricity infrastructure falls well below the estimates needed to meet universal access by 2030, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. 

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 than access to electricity, however also here investments fall short if the universal access is to be achieved by 2030. Access to clean cooking may also benefit from microfinance and innovative business models, but requires the full engagement of the local community to be successful.

Energy production and infrastructure

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. 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 and international cooperation to assure access to much needed investments as well as continuous resistance to internal corruption. 

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

Investment in energy infrastructure must therefore focus not only on grid extension and traditional fossil fuels, but also increasingly on innovative and sustainable solutions life 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.

Energy production from renewable sources plays an important role in ensuring environmentally friendly electricity generation in many countries. This is true for those needing first-time access in developing countries, but even more important for developed countries that need to embrace the energy transition and move from fossil fuel power generation to renewable power generation as fast as possible to reduce the CO2 emission and as such help mitigate climate change. 

When exploring new initiatives based on renewable energy sources, such as large hydro-electric projects, it is very important to take the necessary measures to make sure that any negative consequences for the local environment or populations are dealt with adequately. 

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 greatly from energy poverty as well as from climate change.

In order to mitigate climate change, 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. It is equally important that old generation from fossil fuels will be replaced by facilities that generate electricity from renewable resources at a rate that is fast enough to meet the Paris Agreement objectives of keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. 

Strong public and private sector support is needed, as well as new governance models, to help developing countries as well as developed countries to adopt a low-carbon energy transition. Mitigation actions include using new technologies and renewable energies, making older equipment more energy efficientchanging 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 agriculturefisheries 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.

According to the International Energy Agency, Developing Asia is still home to around 65% of the global population without access, with 1.7 billion people lacking clean cooking facilities. Five- times more people lack clean cooking access than electricity in this region. However, the latest data shows promising signs, with 525 million people gaining access since 2011, compared with only 250 million between 2000 and 2011. In India and China, access rates have reached 47% and 70% respectively, and natural gas and LPG schemes introduced by the respective Governments have helped achieve such progress which is expected to continue

The challenge in sub-Saharan Africa remains acute, with a deteriorating picture. Only 17% of the population have clean cooking access. The vast majority of the 890 million people without access rely on gathering biomass for cooking, in particular in rural areas. Fast population growth means that almost 275 million more Africans now lack clean cooking access than in 2000. 

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.

It is important to be aware that 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.