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The Inherent Opportunity in Today's Energy Poverty Crisis

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"The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word 'crisis'. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity." -- John F. Kennedy.

Almost two years ago, the United Nations (U.N.) declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, successfully bringing much-needed attention to the once overlooked problem of energy poverty. The initiative highlighted the estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide who still do not have access to modern energy and the plight of the 3 billion who rely on traditional biomass as their main fuel sources.

The Global Burden of Disease 2010 study estimated that every year fumes from open cooking fires killed about 4 million people (more than double the amount attributed to malaria or HIV/AIDS) and this is just the beginning of the burdens imposed by energy poverty. As the world becomes more technologically advanced, the gap between the energy poor and the developed world becomes increasingly unbridgeable making it even harder for those left behind to rise out of poverty. Needless to say, if the U.N. Millennium Development Goals are to be achieved, this crisis will need to be addressed.

Reading these troubling facts one might wonder what the inherent opportunity in energy poverty could possibly be. How can such unsettling circumstances bring about a positive result? The answer is simple: because this crisis has been brought to light at a time where its solution could resolve another of this century's great challenges; climate change.

The U.N. Sustainable Energy for All initiative Global Tracking Framework states that:

Although 1.7 billion people gained access to electricity between 1990-2010, this is only slightly ahead of population growth of 1.6 billion over the same period. The pace of expansion will have to double to meet the 100 percent access target by 2030.

Attempting to meet these needs with more of today's more polluting technologies will very likely threaten, if not succeed, to push global temperature above two degrees.

In their paper "Greenhouse gases, climate change and the transition from coal to low-carbon electricity," climate change scientist Ken Caldeira and former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold emphasised that only the lowest CO2 emitting technologies can avoid a hot end-of-century. As greenhouse gas emissions have a long legacy, energy transitions are intrinsically slow leaving no room for quick fixes. Renewables, conservation and possibly carbon capture and storage, argue the authors, are the only approach to achieve substantial climate benefits.

This report is particular noteworthy if you consider that it was only a few years back that Myhrvold, often described as a polymath genius, took quite some heat for quotes from the book SuperFreakonomics where he allegedly seemed skeptical about the "immediate and precipitous anti-carbon initiatives" pushed by climate activists. The story goes that the criticism convinced him he needed to explore the matter further, which led to the creation of a series of specialized global temperature models that captured the effects of varying transitions to low-carbon energy. The result was the aforementioned paper co-authored with Caldeira which asserts that "delaying rollouts of low-carbon-emission energy technologies risks even greater environmental harm in the second half of this century and beyond."

The World Bank and United Nations seem to agree. In its paper entitled "The Energy Sector Directions Paper," the World Bank sets a principles-based course for its work in the energy sector that will focus on expanding energy access and sustainable energy, along with accelerating energy efficiency and renewable energy. The report specifies that "only in rare circumstances" would financial support be provided for new coal power generation. In addition, the report recommends government actions such as a phase out of fossil fuel subsidies and establishing a price on carbon. On the other hand, the Sustainable Energy for All initiative aims to "mobilize action from all sectors of society in support of three interlinked objectives to be achieved by 2030: providing universal access to modern energy services; doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency; and doubling the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix."

So, yes there is great need to create access to energy for a substantial amount of the world's population. However, there is also great awareness and therefore opportunity to do it right, to do it sustainably while fighting climate change, to do it with clean energy. The time is dire but solutions are available, as Canadian former politician Tommy Douglas once said: "Courage, my friends; 'tis not too late to build a better world."

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