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Energy Poverty And Its Human Costs

Energy Poverty And Its Human Costs
Girls from the Lantan hill tribe carrying wood home along a dust track, wearing traditional dress.
Girls from the Lantan hill tribe carrying wood home along a dust track, wearing traditional dress.

More than any other time in history, people around the world are demonstrating a deep and passionate commitment to addressing poverty. With the world wealthier and more prosperous than ever before, no one should be confined to a life of poverty.

A clear sign of the global commitment to end poverty is the release of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The 17 goals serve as a mobilizing force bringing together the public and private sectors to put the global population on a path to a healthier, more prosperous life. The SDGs recognize that economic growth and social advancement are not equally enjoyed by all -- and all of us in leadership positions must do something about it.

Perhaps the single greatest impediment to sustained economic and social growth is the pervasive problem of energy poverty -- the lack of access to a steady, clean and safe supply of electricity. According to the International Energy Agency, roughly 1.2 billion people around the world lack access to electricity, and more than 2.7 billion people are without clean cooking facilities. The vast majority of those lacking electricity and clean cooking facilities live in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia.

It is true that progress has been made in providing wider access to electricity. The World Bank estimates that 1.7 billion people "gained access to electricity between 1990 - 2010." However, that progress is tempered by the fact that the global population grew by 1.6 billion people over the same time.

Universal access to clean, affordable and reliable electricity should be at the core of our collective efforts to end poverty and foster sustained economic and social development for all. Goal seven of the UN SDGs sets the ambitious target that by 2030 we will "ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern electricity services."

Unless this seventh goal is achieved, we will come up short against the progress needed to achieve most every other goal outlined. It is nearly impossible for children to receive a quality education when they have no light at night by which to complete their homework. Health care cannot be delivered to those in need when electricity is unreliable, and we cannot foster the entrepreneurialism needed to achieve sustained economic growth without the creation of energy-based industries.

A balanced, sensible approach to the fight against energy poverty must meet three criteria:

1. Stability: The source of the electricity must be stable and resilient, especially in those regions of the world often subject to severe weather events. In some cases, that might mean the creation of a microgrid where electricity is generated and distributed in close proximity to the local population.

2. Affordability: It does no good to provide an area struggling to generate sustained economic development with expensive electricity that the population cannot afford.

3. Sustainability: We cannot forsake the climate and the health of local ecosystems in a drive to end energy poverty. Local communities are well aware of the environmental consequences of pollutive sources of energy. In many cases this will mean a mixed fuels solution involving traditional and renewable sources of energy.

Access to energy is about much more than achieving a set of lofty global goals. There is a very real human dimension that impacts billions of people around the world every hour of every day. As Bill Gates recently wrote, "Poverty is not just about a lack of money. It's about the absence of the resources the poor need to realize ones [sic] full potential. Two critical ones are time and energy."

Without a stable supply of electricity, people must work incredibly hard every day just to complete basic human tasks such as preparing meals, heating their home or washing their clothes. According to the United Nations report, in sub-Saharan Africa alone it is estimated that women collectively spend 40 billion hours a year collecting water, or the "equivalent of a year's worth of labor by the entire workforce of France."

Just think how much easier and more productive their lives would be if the women in sub-Saharan Africa had access to electric pumps to help them gain better access to the water they need. It is no wonder there is a direct correlation between electricity and economic growth. A study by Taryn Dinkelman found that in South Africa women's employment increased 9.5 percent when they had access to electricity.

Electricity also impacts something we care deeply about -- women's access to clean cookstoves. Last year, Radha Muthiah, chief executive officer of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, and I illuminated this issue in The Huffington Post:

Imagine spending hours every day cooking your family's food over an open fire, your eyes burning and lungs struggling from the constant smoke. Then imagine spending additional hours, often in the dark of dawn or dusk, searching for the fuel needed to start cooking again.

That's the reality -- and a fulltime job -- for millions of women in the developing world, where a lack of access to clean cookstoves and fuels demands arduous hours that could be far better spent.

Again, think about what millions of women could accomplish if they were freed to engage in more entrepreneurial and creative activities. As Radha and I observed, "More efficient and cleaner stoves and fuels can prevent deaths and can save women up to 300 hours or $200 per year, allowing women the time and income needed to pursue opportunities of their choice."

If we are to achieve global sustainable development, every person in the world must have access to stable, affordable and clean electricity. This is a massive undertaking that will require billions of dollars in investment and the best thinking we have to offer.

Coming up short is not an option. Failure to achieve the goal of universal access to energy will unfairly doom billions of people to a life in darkness. No one deserves that.

The Caterpillar Foundation is dedicated to fighting energy poverty worldwide. Learn more about the work The Caterpillar Foundation is doing to combat energy poverty and empower women across the globe.

Michele L. Sullivan is Caterpillar's Director of Corporate Social Innovation and President of the Caterpillar Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Caterpillar Inc. She also has administrative responsibilities for Social Activities and Services and Peoria-area Governmental Affairs.


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