Energy: Bringing Light to Darkness—and Curbing Poverty

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Most of the focus on energy and climate in the developing world boils down to two words: India and China. The rapid growth of those two burgeoning economic giants is changing the pace of energy markets and adding much of the carbon that will be pumped into the atmosphere over the coming decades, speeding climate change. But there’s a flip side to climate and energy concerns. According to a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA), an estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide still lack access to electricity—and barring a major change from donors and rich governments, that number won’t change much in the years to come. “If there is no major breakthrough, despite growth in the global economy, in 2035 there will be 1.2 billion people who will still have no access to electricity,” said Fatih Birol, the IEA’s top economist, at a press conference at UN headquarters on Sept. 21. (You can read the IEA’s report here.)

The IEA announcement took place on the sidelines of the UN’s annual general assembly meeting in New York, where the focus has been on meeting the global body’s Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2015. All week long at the UN on Manhattan’s east side—and across town at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, begun by the former President in 2005—there have been earnest panels about improving maternal health, reducing the toll of HIV/AIDS, encouraging green development and empowering women and girls. Given all the life-and-death struggles that the world’s poor face–the millions who die of preventable infectious disease, the threat of civil conflict and violence, the toll of natural disasters—lacking access to electricity might not seem that important. What good is a lightbulb, after all, if you have a 1 in 16 chance of dying in childbirth?

A lot of good, as it turns out. Access to electricity helps alleviate poverty by making people more productive—think of the time saved if a household in rural Africa has access to electric light, and clean stoves, saving children and women from the need to collect firewood every day. It can also make a difference for health—indoor air pollution from wood burning stoves and fires leads to the death of more than 2 million people in the developing world every year. In sub-Saharan Africa, where energy poverty and poverty of all kinds is at its worst, the electrification rate is just 31% and 80% of people need to use biomass for cooking.  And if the world can’t solve energy poverty, it can’t solve poverty, period—the new IEA report says that the goal of eradicating poverty by 2015 will only be possible if an additional 395 million people obtain access to electricity and another billion can get access to cleaner stoves, as Birol told the New York Times:

Without electricity, social and economic development is much more difficult. Addressing sanitation, clean water, hunger — these goals can’t be met without providing access to energy.

The good news is that it won’t be that expensive to alleviate energy poverty. The IEA reports that it would cost a little more than $36 billion a year to put the world on a path to broader electricity access—and while that might sound like a lot, it’s just 3% of expected global energy investments by 2030. Nor will proving light to the poorest of the poor raise carbon emissions much—Birol estimates that successfully preventing energy poverty would raise oil demand and global CO2 emissions by less than 1% a piece. We can’t afford to leave the world in the dark.