More than 2 billion people in the world have limited or no access to electricity. Nearly 3 billion still cook over fires, and more than 4 million die each year due to indoor pollution generated by lack of clean energy.
Unless more progress is made, these numbers will be the same in 2030, experts told the first United Nations forum on sustainable energy. “Globally we’re running in place,” said Susan McDade, country team leader for Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL), noting that the number of people cooking with firewood is the same as it was 25 years ago primarily due to unaffordable technology.
A prelude to the U.N. Climate Summit 2014 in September, SE4ALL is the U.N. initiative behind the three-day forum that ends on Friday and marks the launch of the U.N. Decade of Sustainable Energy for All.
SE4ALL has set three global objectives to be met by 2030: universal access to energy, twice as much energy efficiency improvement and more than one-third of global energy from clean, renewable resources.
Energy: a mainstream development issue
“One of the challenges is to take the discussion of energy outside the traditional energy sector,” McDade said, adding that it needs to be seen as a “mainstream development issue” that affects education, health, women’s empowerment, political participation and job creation.
Another challenge is adequate financing for clean energy entrepreneurs. Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank Group, has said $600 to 800 billion is needed to achieve the U.N.’s 2030 energy goals.
New ways must be found to persuade investors to finance access to energy, said Nicola Armacost, managing director of Arc Finance, which promotes global access to finance for clean energy and water.
“You have to make the business case and frame the data in a way that makes the business case,” she said, pointing to a project in India where women kept diaries showing how access to energy changed their lives, helping their children improve their school grades because they had light to study by at night.
Not just electricity
Access to energy – which has traditionally meant hooking a house or community up to the electricity grid – needs to be redefined to include off-grid cleaner energy sources and fuels, such as solar power, liquefied petroleum gas and biomass derived from organic materials and waste, said Aaron Leopold, global energy advocate at Practical Action, an NGO that uses technology to fight poverty in developing countries.
If women, for example, had greater access to affordable clean cookstoves and solar lamps, they would no longer have the time-consuming and potentially dangerous task of gathering firewood far from home and would gain independence as breadwinners.
“The lack of access to clean energy really falls on women rather than men,” said Chhavi Sharma, international programme manager at Ashden, a UK-based charity that promotes sustainable energy and development.
A vivid example of the impact of affordable energy
Divuben Rathod – a salt pan worker from India’s Gujarati desert and a member of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) trade union of more than 2 million poor, self-employed women – offered a vivid example of the impact of affordable energy.
One of some 30,000 salt pan workers who toil in the desert for eight months of the year, Rathod, through an interpreter, said that about 70 percent of their earnings typically went to pay for the diesel fuel needed to pump the brine for salt.
Investing in a solar pump to do the job changed her life, she said. The pump, which she has been using for a year, decreased her fuel expenses by about 75 percent and allowed her to harvest two crops of salt instead of just one due to the savings.
Rathod did not say how much she spent on the solar pump, but noted that before buying it, she earned about $68 for the entire season, compared to nearly $900 afterward.
In fact, she was able to purchase her own ticket to come to the U.N. forum, even though her family thought it was a waste of money to come to the U.S.
“I told them it is an investment because I am taking the story of not just me, but 30,000 members like me who have been working out in the desert. I wanted to bring their voices to the policymakers,” she said.
Nonetheless, clean energy remains unaffordable and inaccessible for many, according to Reema Nanavaty, general secretary of SEWA.
A regular wood- or charcoal-burning stove may cost about $3 and can be fixed by a woman herself if it breaks, Nanavaty said, while a clean cookstove costs about $60 and requires professional repair if broken.
Lisa Anderson is the North America correspondent for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, reporting on humanitarian issues, anti-corruption, good governance and women’s rights.
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