Energy Poverty

Recent stories of Ghana and the Congo rationing their electricity supplies so that football fans can watch the World Cup highlight the passion with which the sport is enjoyed in those countries. Given my soft spot for Ghana, where I recently spent six months working, I’ll be joining millions of other Ghanaians this evening in shouting the Black Stars on through the TV set as they take on Portugal.

On a more serious note, however, the stories are also indicative of the extent to which the two countries, like many other developing countries, are affected by limited access to energy. According to the International Energy Agency, nearly 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity, over 95% of which live in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Though it’s from 2010, the map below illustrates that statistic quite well.

Credit: NY Times
Credit: NY Times

Energy poverty is a deeper issue, however, than simply lacking access to electricity. It means having inadequate access to energy for basic household needs, for income generation, and for public services, and it means relying on inefficient, and often harmful traditional forms.

Around 2.6 billion people rely on the traditional use of biomass for cooking, and the effects are significant. In addition to the time burden and environmental impact associated with collecting fuel for inefficient stoves, there are severe health consequences. Indoor air pollution (IAP) produced by traditional biomass-based cooking methods leads to around 3.5 million premature deaths each year.

Importantly, these impact disproportionately affect women, who are often responsible for cooking. Other impacts include the costs of poor lighting quality, such as a reliance on dangerous kerosene lamps and a potential constraint on time spent studying or reading.

Although the Millennium Development Goals do not include a target on energy access, there is, fortunately, a growing recognition that efforts to tackle poverty will depend on increasing access to modern energy services.

Technologies are being rolled out at various scales (such as rechargeable lamps, improved cookstoves, community-based solar programmes, and national grid extensions) and international advocacy is growing.

In 2010 the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change (AGECC) called upon the UN and its member states to adopt the goal of ensuring universal access to modern energy services by 2030, and there are growing calls for the inclusion of an energy access target in a post-2015 development framework.

The One Campaign is currently advocating US citizens to sign a petition to pass the Energize Africa Act, which would make energy poverty in Africa a priority for US development policies.

While there are some important questions around trade-offs between energy targets and climate change mitigation (the Energize Africa Act, which will help mobilise investment through the administration’s Power Africa Initiative, will finance the establishment of power plants – more on this later ),  hopefully by the time we’re watching the 2022 World Cup the global picture of energy access will look a little brighter.

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