Fighting energy poverty is at the heart of our work at the Climate Parliament. Across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, our networks of MPs are campaigning for new laws and new funding streams to ensure that all their constituents are provided with clean, reliable, and affordable renewable energy. And with the launch of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals in New York last month, access to clean and sustainable energy is now enshrined into the post-2015 development agenda.
But why is clean electricity so important to development? For development professionals the answer might be obvious, but for the average person struggling to tell their SE4ALL from their SDGs, the answer might not be so clear.
Let's take a moment to consider the scale of the energy poverty problem. According to UN estimates, 1.2 billion people around the world live without access to modern energy services, while another billion have only intermittent or unreliable access. "Modern energy services" is, essentially, just UN lingo for electricity: cooking and heating, lighting and communications, and power for running machines, fridges, tools, and other equipment.
Without access to electricity, these billions of people face serious hardship. Women must trek for miles to gather traditional fuels such as wood and dung to run dirty and dangerous cooking stoves that belch poisonous smoke into their homes. Children have no light in the dark evenings for reading or study. Mobile phones cannot be charged; entrepreneurs cannot power their businesses; potentially life-saving medicines cannot be properly refrigerated.
Access to energy could have a transformational effect on these lives. Indeed, access to reliable, affordable energy has a major impact on many of the other Sustainable Development Goals launched last month, especially those related to health, education, gender equality, sanitation, economic growth, reducing inequality, promoting sustainable industrialisation, and tackling climate change.
Indeed, as the UK Parliamentary Office on Science & Technology has noted, "there is a direct relationship between the absence of adequate energy services and many poverty indicators such as infant mortality, illiteracy, life expectancy and total fertility rate."
Energy = Good, Clean Energy = Best
Many governments around the world have made it a top priority to provide universal access to electricity for their citizens. Indeed, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has said, “Energy is the golden thread that connects economic growth, increased social equity, and an environment that allows the world to thrive.”
But we also need to think very carefully about where that energy is coming from. Too much of the modern world relies on energy from carbon-intensive fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas. Burning these fuels releases carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, leading to dangerous and unpredictable changes in the Earth's climate. It is now irrefutable that climate change has already begun to cause widespread harm to lives, communities, infrastructure, institutions and budgets around the world.
Climate change puts us all at risk, but it hurts the poor first – and hardest. If we rely on coal and gas to bring electricity to the world's poorest, we risk condemning future generations to living in a world scarred by droughts, heat waves, famines, and disease epidemics. Let us be clear: it is the rich world that created the climate problem, but the rest of us have a responsibility not to make it even worse for future generations.
That is why renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar, are so vital in the fight against energy poverty. Sustainable energy can no longer be dismissed as an expensive luxury. It's an essential and affordable tool, capable of bringing heat, light and power to millions without relying on polluting, expensive fossil fuels. With sustainable energy, countries can leapfrog over the limits of the energy systems of the past and build the clean energy economies of the future.
Renewable technologies are especially suited to off-grid applications, where extending the national grid would be too expensive or technically challenging. Renewables can thus bring power to remote rural villages or informal settlements through mini-grids or distributed renewable generators. Indeed, the IEA estimates that to achieve universal electricity access, mini-grids need to account for 40% of new capacity by 2030, the largest portion being in sub-Saharan Africa.
Empowerment through energy
Off-grid renewables meet three key development goals simultaneously. They provide energy access to dispersed or impoverished citizens; they reduce carbon emissions and thus mitigate climate change; and they improve a nation's energy security. They are a “triple-win”. But to be effective, renewables need the support of government, and the support of parliaments.
That's why the Climate Parliament is working with legislators and members of congress around the world in order to push the sustainable development agenda forward. The transition to renewable energy cannot happen without well-designed policies, flexible yet robust regulatory frameworks, and clear budget priorities. Governments and parliaments have a crucial role to play in developing and implementing the new laws urgently required to unlock the huge potential of sustainable energy. But none of it can happen without the commitment, the passion, and the political will of individual legislators such as those in our networks.