Picture credit: Africapedia
Today, there are one billion people worldwide living without electricity, restricting their access to basic services and development. This issue is addressed by the seventh UN Sustainable Development Goal, the fulfilment of which is key to facilitating many of the other SDGs. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has emphasised that ‘energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity and an environment that allows the world to thrive’, consequently placing clean, affordable energy at the heart of sustainable development.
Energy and income inequality go hand in hand; poorer people must spend a much greater share of their household income on energy than the wealthy do, partially because of lower incomes but also because the fuel and equipment they use is often inefficient compared with more modern fuel and equipment. However, when low-income households do have electricity, it can transform the community. It provides lighting which increases hours for work or study, as well as providing power for household appliances, agriculture, manufacturing, school and health services. This not only raises the quality of life but boosts productivity and education and supports resilience to environmental and economic shocks.
Gender equality is closely linked to energy poverty since it is often girls and women who are responsible for gathering and transporting fuel, such as wood, over long distances. This puts them at risk of snake-bites and twisting an ankle, as well as reducing the time they might spend studying or working. Energy even has implications for rural-urban divides, as the practical challenges and high cost of providing conventional power infrastructure to rural communities means that many are without electricity. This then contributes to social division in countries where many indigenous people live in remote areas, for instance in South Asia, and are therefore disproportionately affected by energy poverty.
Ironically, it is also developing countries, which contribute least to global warming, which will be affected most by it; they have limited financial and human capacity to deal with climate change and are often more dependent on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture. Since energy is the dominant contributor to climate change, the transition to renewable energy sources is therefore essential in addressing this inequity.
Renewables are also an opportunity to tackle access to power; solar panels are decreasing in price as technology improves and are already as cheap as or even cheaper than fossil fuels in some parts of the world. In Lagos, a partnership between a solar start-up and telecommunications provider has brought solar power to 50,000 homes, clinics, schools, and businesses, benefiting over 250,000 people, and creating 450 jobs, and solar home systems are expected to bring basic electricity services to almost 70 million people in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa by 2022.
A UN report published last year states that technological progress and cost-reduction in renewable technology could have a significant impact on rural areas, which are home to 82% of those without power in less developed countries. Since ‘off-grid’ or ‘mini-grid’ power can avoid transmission and distribution costs, renewable energy can be more cost-effective than extending the electricity grid. In rural Cambodia, for instance, solar-power water pumps in villages have improved access to freshwater for both domestic use and irrigation, resulting in higher income and food security.
In fact, a recent report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance reveals that as developing countries have moved their focus from coal to renewable energy, they have overtaken OECD countries in the transition to green energy, shifting the dynamic of the global energy market. Dario Traum, a senior associate at BNEF, says ‘just a few years ago, some argued that less developed nations could not, or even should not, expand power generation with zero-carbon sources because these were too expensive. Today, these countries are leading the charge when it comes to deployment, investment, policy innovation and cost reductions.’
Renewable energy also has the potential to promote social equality due to the horizontal structure of its supply chain. Fossil fuel energy has a vertical supply chain using complex infrastructure, with profits shared among a small group of shareholders. In contrast, renewable energy is a chance to create a more decentralised system of energy production and consumption. It allows new stakeholders, including farmers and SMEs, to join the energy market and, by empowering local citizens and communities to invest in renewable energy, contributes to more equally distributed wealth. This is the approach taken by Power For All, a global coalition of two hundred public and private organizations which advocates renewable, decentralised electrification as the most cost-effective, fast and sustainable means of universal energy access.
However, the situation can be complex. One of the major concerns tackled by SDG 7 is indoor air pollution — the World Health Organisation estimates that every year almost 4 million people die prematurely from illness caused by cooking and heating homes with solid fuels including wood and dung. An important solution for this has been supplying stoves which burn liquid gas instead, a fossil fuel which saves lives, cuts carbon dioxide emissions and reduces deforestation — but is non-renewable. India’s energy policy reflects this conflict; it has ambitious renewable energy plans and was ranked second in Climatescope’s 2018 ranking, which investigated clean energy transition in developing countries, however it is still heavily reliant on coal as it attempts to expand energy access for its growing population and help lift low-income households out of poverty.
The solutions to these challenges are not always obvious, but we must remain optimistic that innovation in clean, affordable energy, aided by continued investment, will provide a clearer pathway in the future. Cities and countries who are already making the transition to renewable energy should seize this opportunity to democratize the energy sector and transform it into an inclusive and equitable driver of development.