Lydia is just a city gal hoping to make the world a greener and fairer place! Her column ‘Greener Economy’ will talk about some of the economic and political solutions that will help create a more equitable society as well as more liveable conditions for current and future generations.
A girl switching on a solar-powered light in her village, Morabandar near Mumbai as a result of NYU student Mansi Prakash’s project to supply better lightbulbs to the area. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain.
At the 2012 World Future Energy Summit, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon described energy as ‘the golden thread that connects economic growth, social equity, and environmental sustainability.’
The unfortunate truth is that energy poverty exists. Consequently, many still struggle to meet basic living standards. Though two billion people have gained access to electricity in the last three decades, in certain countries there are many issues still to be addressed. Death by intoxication from firewood, biofuel and charcoal during cooking is still common, refrigerators needed to preserve vital vaccines are inaccessible, and light that enables students to study and ensures the safety of civilians in the dark is almost non-existent.
There is clearly a correlation between general poverty and energy poverty. Those living on less than two dollars daily have low electrification rates and a corresponding low access to health services, public safety and education. Approximately 1.1 billion have limited access to electricity, while two in five worldwide lack access to clean cooking and heating, causing more than 4.3 million deaths each year – more than double what is caused by malaria and HIV/AIDS combined.
These humanitarian concerns are coupled with a reliance on non-renewable energy sources that will be unable to address future energy needs. Today, we have four leading sources of electricity: coal, natural gas, nuclear energy and hydroelectricity. As the World Bank’s latest data suggests, a dominant 81 percent of the world’s energy is produced from fossil fuels – a figure that has remained unchanged during the last thirty years. Supplying nations with fossil fuel-sourced energy as opposed to clean energy creates many problems: externalised health and environmental costs, expensive long-term power purchase agreements and higher transmission-distribution costs in rural areas are only a few.
What energy-poor countries need is not more dirty energy, but a greater investment in clean energy. While fossil-fuel sources can be readily implemented, renewables have practical benefits over non-renewables in the context of developing nations, as they can be installed quickly and cheaply. The environmental benefits of hydro, wind and solar are also an obvious plus.
Unfortunately, however, green changes do not appeal to those who crave the easy wealth coal and oil offer. Having to restructure an entire company demands time and money. When government pressure or incentives are absent, environmental concerns are regarded as just another obstacle to maximising profit.
This is exemplified by the Carmichael mine project proposed by India’s Adani Group. Situated in Central Queensland, it would be the world’s largest coal reserve, generating 4.7 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions annually – nine times Australia’s total emission in 2014. The Federal Government partly justifies the mine based on the fact that it supports global development goals. However, the choice to go with short-term, environmentally damaging investments jeopardises the health of populations in India and their ability to benefit from cleaner energy options.
Though funding towards renewable energy production methods may require more time, strong energy foundations will ensure stable future economic growth and better public health outcomes. For example, a drastic drop in the number of respiratory disease and cancer patients from the availability of clean energy will allow governments to reallocate public health resources to areas such as infrastructure and education.
Most importantly, countries with clean energy foundations attract extensive foreign investment and give small business owners a chance to thrive without having to pay eco-tax.
The economic benefits of installing renewable energy production plants are immeasurable, especially when the costs of renewable energy technologies are falling in many energy-poor nations. Global investment amounted to a whole $285.9 billion in 2015, despite a competitive drop in fossil fuel prices and a decline in USD.
With the knowledge that renewable energy is the smarter option, nations have begun taking the renewables route. China contributed to 61 percent of global investment ($56.3 billion) with growing public demand for clean energy and a better quality of life. Meanwhile, India recently opened the world’s largest solar power plant and by 2030, the government aims to produce 40 percent of its power from non-fossil fuel sources.
On a smaller scale, rural villages in sub-Saharan Africa are benefitting from localised mini-grids – powered by renewable sources – that have become the cheapest provider of electricity. Recently, the International Renewable Energy Agency has even granted Mauritania a five-million-dollar loan to help fund installation.
On a practical level, energy conservation strategies like retrofitting buildings through the use of efficient technologies (especially high-insulation materials) not only reduce energy costs but also create new jobs across multiple industries worldwide.
There is hope that recent global trends will continue. Governments of developing nations can no longer fall victim to realpolitik and allow tax breaks and payouts to fossil-fuel industries. Nigeria, Africa’s largest oil-producing country, is simultaneously the second poorest in energy. Even if international funding is required, it is more crucial than ever that renewable energy production and distribution replace old technologies. Poverty alleviation goes hand in hand with clean energy distribution and benefits us all.