For a moment, imagine yourself without electricity: you can’t cook, you don’t have Internet, you can’t do the all nighter you need to study for your exams, nor bathe in hot water or wash the clothes in the machine… Our life has changed since mass access to energy (electricity, oil,…) and we are no longer able to deal with its absence.
However, around the world, 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity and 2.7 billion depend on wood or other forms of biomass. This, which we often ignore, drastically limits the development of these populations and hinders the positive evolution of the countries in which they are.
We are dealing with a trilemma: it is important to ensure widespread access to energy, but we must consider its environmental impact and energy security. There are different interconnected interests and often in competition when we talk about climate change mitigation, energy security and energy poverty. What has happened is that we are ignoring poverty and development.
For the sake of time, I will focus on the problem of energy poverty, particularly with regard to access to energy, because I assume that the media and the education of many of the readers have enabled some knowledge on energy security as well as on Climate change.
The lack of energy is made up of lack of access to electricity and dependence on fuels from biomass. The easiest way to illustrate this concept is through a ladder in which individuals of different income have access to different types of energy. For example, a household of a low-income developing country will mainly use wood and straw to cook, and in a developed country, such as Portugal, we use electricity and natural gas.
Remembering the initial challenge, it is possible to predict the impact of access to energy in our lives. However, it is important to ensure not only access, but also the stability, price and quality of energy. Thus, it is not enough to think about having a lamp in every house in the world, but to draw much more ambitious goals for the development of these communities.
Access to energy has an impact on problems that are more commonly known as the development or gender equality.
Poverty and productivity
What would all the college students in the world do without electricity? I remember perfectly the stories of teachers who did work under candlelight. Today our dependence on ICT does not allow us to adapt to an environment without energy.
Our days have become longer thanks to electricity. We can work during the night as easily as we work during the day. This allowed us to dramatically increase our productivity given that, with more hours of work, we were able to produce more.
Nowadays, the development of many nations is limited, for example, by the number of hours of sun they have, which affects not only national wealth, but also every citizen, making social mobility more difficult.
There are several obstacles that prevent the development of millions of girls and women all over the world. One of them is the difficulty in the access of girls to education. It is not only the lack of schools or the patriarchal societies in which they are inserted that prevent them from having an education. If you have to walk miles to get water or wood, you will necessarily have less time to study. We can infer that the lack of energy, allied with many other factors, contributes to the sedimentation of existing structures.
The world is increasingly aware of these problems and their correlation with energy. Since 2015, several multilateral summits within the UN and legislative measures, such as the EU’s Energy Union, have brought discussions on energy and sustainability to the media and the general public.
With the Paris agreement and the UN Sustainable Energy Initiative for all (1) We have been able to sense that this trilemma is known to policymakers, but global decisions aiming to solve it have different results in each nation, region and community. Ignoring local needs and the lack of political incentives for poverty reduction are two of the major problems I identify in successfully applying global targets with local policies.
It is important that the new world we are building, the post-Paris world, does not ignore the reality of more than half of the world’s population. The distance between the local realities, where most of the population without access to energy is, and the political elites has meant that solutions planned in those high offices are not suited to the problem felt by the communities, leading to unexpected and sometimes undesired results.
Many policies, both in developed countries and in developing countries, focus, for example, on intense energy users, ignoring the needs of simple individuals. Thus, the projects that we have do not adapt to those who need them most.
National governments have a great impact on the use of energy by their citizens: for example, in Nigeria, efforts to reduce energy subsidies (2) led several people to stop using modern fuels to cook, returning to use the traditional fuels.
This article does not intend to devalue the importance of measures that are taken at global or national level, but rather to warn about the importance of local governments making an appropriate survey of the needs of the region to have a more active voice in the discussion and approval of measures at national or global level.
Connection between energy shortages and energy security
The geopolitics of energy can sometimes lead to political decisions that concern the balance of power of the international system and not, at least not directly, with the welfare of the population. While trying to secure stable energy sources, the US has been very active militarily in the Caspian Sea region. For example, in 1997, troops were deployed to Kazakhstan for some exercises with troops from the region. This operation was not only launched for military reasons: The Caspian has long been identified as an alternative source of energy to the Middle East which makes this region the target of disputes between various actors of the international scene.
Given that there are limited resources, the investment in this type of policy necessarily diverts funds from poverty alleviation and public aid to development.
Link between energy shortages and climate change
In developed countries, not everyone has environmentally friendly habits because often there is a high cost associated. So, few have solar panels in their homes, for example. The financial situation of the families has an even greater weight in the developing countries where the choice is not about the type of energy that is to be consumed, but rather between consuming energy or food.
The lack of energy forces people to look for more polluting and less dense energy sources, such as biomass, often causing deforestation and contaminating the soil and surrounding waters. This depletion instigates conflicts over territory, reduces the amount of food available and sources of traditional medicines, facilitating the malnutrition of populations.
In short, we can infer that access to sustainable energy for all is a goal with different parts in motion generating complexity such that whatever choice is taken, something will be left behind. However, more knowledge about the real impact that the Paris agreement will have on these vulnerable populations is necessary for each country to be able to formulate policies to meet the targets it has committed in 2015.
As reinforced in COP23, cities and regions will play a key role in this process because they are better integrated and more aware of what is happening on the ground. In collaboration with the existing multilateral platforms and with the remaining civil society, we will surely arrive at a solution that is more adequate to what the planet needs.
December 20, 2017
(1) For more information, consult http://www.se4all.org/