Published: Olivia Chen and artwork by Ryan Ward.
This year, there remain in the world, by the World Bank’s most recent estimate, 840 million people without access to electricity, and 3 billion people without access to clean cooking. The population without access to electricity is mostly concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa, whereas the population without clean cooking spans the African, Asian, and Latin American continents. In every part of the world, urban residents tend to receive modern energy solutions well before rural residents.
Lacking access to modern energy is a significant impediment to countries’ economic development. As such, the United Nations has included universal access to energy as one of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. It is numbered goal 7.1: “by 2030 ensure universal access to affordable, reliable, and modern energy services.” Recently, a Global Commission to End Energy Poverty has been convened to address this very challenge.
Access to electricity, even for the smallest appliances, can significantly alter quality of life. Additional light bulbs can improve security and extend the productive hours of the day beyond sunset. In many cases, having electricity gives children more time to do their homework at night, benefiting their education. Chargers keep mobile phones – which are more ubiquitous than electricity supply in many countries – functioning as sources of information and tools for communication. At a higher level of electricity supply, fans can combat heat and fridges can extend the shelf time of perishables. Surveys conducted by the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association have found that most households report improvements to their quality of life, health, and income thanks to electricity access.
Beyond the household, electricity can facilitate essential community services in schools, community centres, and hospitals. In particular, lights in hospital operation wards and refrigeration for vaccines are essential for healthcare improvements. At the industrial level, productivity gains from electrifying processes can jump-start economic growth.
Access to clean cooking, though sometimes less visible an issue on the international political agenda, is similarly fundamental for economic growth. Those without typically rely on burning biomass for heat and light. In households where traditional cookstoves are used, smoke is not typically redirected outside of the house. The World Health Organisation estimates the indoor air pollution to cause 3.8 million premature deaths per year. These health consequences fall disproportionately on women, who are often in charge of cooking, and can exacerbate gender inequality.
Clean cooking is also an issue of productivity. As traditional cookstoves have low efficiency, cooking can take long periods of time. It also takes time, up to 5 hours a day, to gather the necessary fuel. Various solutions can contribute to health, equality, and economic growth. Modern cookstoves that burn biomass can be significantly more efficient and cleaner, even if they use the same traditional fuel. Other improved options are cookstoves that run on liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas, or electricity.
Also included in the same United Nations 2030 development agenda, and increasingly at the forefront of political agendas around the world, is the challenge of climate mitigation. Sustainable Development Goal 13 mandates “[taking] urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.” Climate change is considered by many to be the key challenge of our generation, bound to impact all of humanity, rich and poor.
At face value, the objectives of climate mitigation and energy access seem incompatible. How do we extend electricity and clean cooking fuels or technologies to further populations without increasing the global greenhouse gas footprint? Would commitment to climate mitigation strongly restrict energy access expansions and their resulting development gains?
Long-term modelling has shown one way that we can balance both of these urgent and important objectives. The International Energy Agency has mapped out the Sustainable Development Scenario, which is a future in which both Sustainable Development Goals in discussion (as well as air pollution improvements) are achieved globally by 2030. In this pathway, energy access is achieved in a way that is not only net neutral for climate mitigation, but even helpful in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Leaders of governments and the energy sector can adhere to elements of this Utopian scenario:
First of all, renewable energy is incorporated heavily into the portfolio of energy access solutions. Solar photo-voltaic panels and hydro-power for electricity generation, as well as biomass in more efficient cookstoves [IS1] are considered cost-effective low-carbon solutions. For a point of reference, in the Sustainable Development Scenario, over three-quarters of new electricity connections are provided by renewable sources.
Renewable energy sources can pose limitations on the end-user if not installed thoughtfully. For example, to ensure that solar energy can provide adequate levels of energy services, solar panels can be combined with battery packs to ensure lighting at night, etc. Companies selling solar home systems typically include batteries for this purpose and allow houses to access electricity off-grid. These solutions are particularly cost-effective in places with lower population density, where it might not be justifiable to expand expensive grid infrastructure.
Second, energy access solutions can maximise the added-value of any unavoidable greenhouse gases by selling efficient end use appliances. Efficient appliances provide necessary energy services – lighting, heating, cooling, washing, etc. – with a lower electricity supply. This not only limits the associated greenhouse gas emissions of power usage, but also reduces electricity bills, and makes battery capacity last longer hours for off-grid households.
Third, it turns out that the goal of clean cooking is quite compatible with climate mitigation. When using traditional cookstoves, the incomplete combustion of biomass fuel can lead to significant methane emissions. This methane can be reduced significantly by replacing traditional cookstoves with more efficient, modern cookstoves. Even though modern stoves may directly burn fossil fuels or rely on power generated from fossil fuels – the methane avoided typically outweighs newly emitted greenhouse gases. This is because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas with 25 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 100-year period. The more inefficient cookstoves are replaced, the more of the greenhouse effect can be avoided. While clean cooking is inherently important, for health and socioeconomic reasons, this finding provides additional motivation to prioritise this goal.
Energy access is only the first rung of a ladder of increasing energy consumption that facilitates economic development. In recent years, several advanced economies have finally decoupled their economic growth from energy consumption. This happens especially in countries where the economy shifts away from manufacturing to lower-carbon activities such as service sector office jobs. However, the historic trajectory of economic development has been closely tied to increasing energy consumption.
Sustainable Development Goal 7.1 focuses on the household as a starting point. This paints a relatively complete picture for cooking, but electricity usage is far more ubiquitous in our societies. A household’s electricity consumption approximately triples from simple task lighting and phone charging to water heating, cooling, and air circulation. As analysis published by the United Nations has demonstrated, scenarios based on different levels of household electricity consumption yield very different greenhouse gas footprints.
Electricity is also necessary beyond the household. For commerce to develop, more kilowatt-hours of electricity and litres of fuel are needed to run shops and restaurants, propel sewing machines, power computers, etc. Some argue that industry is the essential starting point for combating poverty: by electrifying industry, we can enable a greater jump in revenue than at the household level. Industry can provide a sufficient anchor load of electricity demand to justify investment in power infrastructure.
When considering the likely future increases in energy consumption from the populations first receiving access now, we find all the more justification to support renewable energy and efficient technologies, for the sake of the climate. Building power systems based on clean energy today, especially in all contexts where low-carbon sources are the most cost-effective options, will also keep the door open for future generations of the developing world to increase their energy consumption without fear of climate consequences.