Future global energy demand is a much-studied topic. The International Energy Agency can map demand into the next century and attempt to say how that demand will be met. But amongst the wrangling over fossil fuels vs nuclear vs renewable energy, one facet of global demand gets missed out: energy poverty.
A third of the world’s population doesn’t have access to cheap energy. If current progress continues, there will still be 900 million people without electricity in 2030, and 3 billion still cooking on traditional fuels such as wood or animal dung. In fact, given population growth, there will be more people cooking with unhealthy and inferior fuels in 2030 than there are today. As a consequence, an estimated 30 million people will die from smoke-related diseases.
Despite this, access to energy is fairly low on the global to-do list. Perhaps that’s understandable, given the competing priorities of health, education, and basic poverty alleviation. But, as we’ve seen before with water and sanitation, infrastructure is a catalyst to all of those other aims. Access to energy has benefits across all those other legitimate social concerns. So Practical Action is campaigning for Total Energy Access, and the Poor People’s Energy Outlook is a way of monitoring progress. It “seeks to understand and communicate the real experience of people living in energy poverty, and show how people’s lives can be changed by energy access.”
Access to energy is a vital part of overcoming poverty. Imagine living without a fridge to store fresh food, or without electric lights to read by at night – your way of life is constrained by daylight hours. When you factor in not being able to use power tools, charge a phone, or run a computer, you can see the obstacles to business too.
Without access to reliable and affordable electricity, you can’t use any kind of machinery – whether that’s a mill to grind grain, a pump to irrigate fields, or a lathe to shape wood. You are shut out of global communications, and all the benefits of online services and information. You have to use simpler, old-fashioned technologies such as manual sewing machines or typewriters. Even if funding is available through micro-finance, you will never run anything more than a cottage industry. So developing countries need energy to do business, creating new opportunities and making existing activity more productive and efficient.
Energy is also vital to agriculture. Raising yields in African countries is a real priority in a world of rising food prices and growing populations, yet many small farmers still rely on hand tools and manual labour. Farmers need energy inputs to till, plant and harvest, and then for processing and storing foods. Energy allows you to increase local production and improve food sovereignty. You can also add value to your crops. If you can power a mill, you can sell flour instead of grain.
That poor people need access to cheaper energy is, in my opinion, not up for debate. The important questions are around how that can be delivered in a sustainable manner. There is climate change to consider, and there is no point in creating energy dependencies on dwindling resources. It would be counter-productive to mechanise a farm, only to see global diesel prices spiral out of reach of the tractor driver.
Energy access for all therefore requires a judicious combination of old and new technologies. Draught animals can double the amount of land cultivated, which is a big step up. Tractors can double it again and more, but remain too expensive for many small farmers. One approach to this problem is Integrated Food Energy Systems, where farmers grow food and energy crops together. The waste from one crop might serve as fuel for anaerobic digestion or biomass burning, which provides energy that irrigates another crop, for example.
Many poor people will be able to leapfrog to newer technologies and bypass older and more polluting forms of energy generation. Renewable energy will reduce the need for national grids and power stations. Mobile phones mean many places will never be connected to a landline phone system. Biogas will ease the pressure on forests for firewood.
Still, even with the best technologies available, there will still be a rise in CO2 emissions from the poorest countries. That’s why we in the West need to work in the opposite direction. As developing countries increase their energy use and fight poverty, we can create ecological space for the poor by reducing our energy use and eliminating waste.