Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Poverty: Combating Poverty with Clean Energy

Wood-savong stove | Credit: UN

By Bernhard Schell

IDN-InDepth NewsReport

Fighting poverty by promoting sustainable development and mitigating climate change is one of the priorities of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon for 2011. With this is view, he is calling for a global revolution that would benefit some 1.6 billion people in developing countries still lacking access to electricity.

Addressing the Fourth World Future Energy Summit in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on January 17, Ban said: "Our challenge is transformation. We need a global clean energy revolution -- a revolution that makes energy available and affordable for all."

This, he added, is essential for minimizing climate risks, for reducing poverty and improving global health, for empowering women and meeting the Millennium Development Goals (eight anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline), for global economic growth, peace and security, and the health of the planet."

Ban said that the decisions taken now will have far-reaching consequences. The prevailing fossil fuel-based economy is contributing to climate change -- and global energy needs are growing rapidly.

Several studies point out that in twenty years, energy consumption will rise by 40 per cent, mostly in developing countries, where 1.6 billion people still lack access to electricity, and where 3 billion people rely on traditional biomass fuels for cooking, heating, and other basic household needs.

The Secretary-General’s Advisory Group on Energy and Climate Change, set up in 2009, has recommended two "bold but achievable" targets for 2030 -- universal access to modern energy sources and a 40 per cent increase in energy efficiency.

"To achieve this, we must invest in the intellectual capital that will create new, green technologies. We need to increase private and public spending on research and development, and Governments need to create the right incentives," said Ban.

"So let us pledge to invest wisely. We need to get our priorities right. People everywhere should be able to enjoy the health, educational and social benefits that modern energy sources offer," he said, adding: "We are on the brink of an exciting, sustainable future. Clean energy for all."

Ban's call could not have come at a more opportune point in time. In December 2010, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 2012 as the 'International Year for Sustainable Energy for All' with the aim of promoting new and renewable energy technologies, including measures to improve access to such technologies.

The year 2012 also marks 20 years since the Rio Earth Summit adopted Agenda 21, a blueprint for sustainable development, an issue Ban has made one of his top priorities.

“As we look forward to the Rio+20 Conference, let us be aware that clean energy and a low-carbon economy are among the keys to unlocking the door to a safer, more peaceful and prosperous world for all.

"We count on you -- leaders of governments, civil society and the private sector -- to turn this vision into reality. Together, we can change the lives of billions of people," the UN Secretary General said.

Addressing a forum of young future energy leaders, Ban stressed the need to "get serious about sustainable development".

He pointed out that in addition to the 3 billion people who still rely on traditional biomass fuels and coal, 2 million people, mostly women and children, die every year due to indoor air pollution -- nearly double the number of deaths worldwide from malaria. "This is unacceptable and it is avoidable. It is time to close the global access gap," he said.

Ban also praised the Abu Dhabi authorities for their Masdar Initiative, a project intended to showcase a sustainable, clean-energy future. Its centrepiece is Masdar City, a green, planned community located in Abu Dhabi, built by corporations including the Abu Dhabi Future Energy Company, and funded by the United Arab Emirates Government.


Ban's call for a global revolution to meet world's energy challenges does not come out of the blue as evidenced by the United Nations-backed involvement in cook stoves, which holds the promise of saving lives, uplifting health, improving regional environments, reducing deforestation, empowering local entrepreneurs, speeding development, and helping to stem global climate change.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has joined international efforts to dramatically boost the efficiency of some 3 billion cook stoves across Africa, Asia and Latin America, with the aim to protect women’s health and provide significant environmental benefits.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves was launched in September 2010 on the margins of the General Assembly summit to review progress on the global anti-poverty targets known as the Millennium Development Goals.

Part of the Clinton Global Initiative spearheaded by the UN Foundation, the Global Alliance aims to cut the estimated 1.6 million to 1.8 million premature deaths linked with indoor emissions from inefficient cook stoves.

This initiative will also contribute to reducing deforestation by curbing the large quantities of wood and other biomass used to make charcoal, and by households switching to alternative fuels, including cookers powered by solar energy.

"In addition to meeting the health targets of the Millennium Development Goals, especially among women and children who are often the most exposed to indoor air pollution, the Alliance may have wider and indeed global benefits," said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

"Inefficient cooking stoves are estimated to be responsible for approximately 25 per cent of emissions of black carbon, particles often known as soot, of which 40 per cent is linked to wood burning," he said.

According to research under the UNEP-supported Atmospheric Brown Cloud project, black carbon could now be responsible for between 10 to 40 per cent of current climate change.

Emissions of black carbon may also be accelerating melting rates of glaciers in mountain ranges such as the Himalayas, with the dark particles absorbing sunlight and raising ice temperatures. In addition, black carbon -- a key component of brown clouds in some parts of the world -- is contributing to dimming and reducing the amount of sunlight hitting the ground in polluted parts of the globe.

For example, some major cities in Asia may be up to 25 per cent dimmer or darker than they were half a century ago. Reductions in visible light may also be harming agriculture, again with implications for poverty and for combating hunger under the MDGs.

Such initiatives as the African Rural Energy Enterprise Development (AREED) have compiled lessons learned with respect to cook stoves. AREED's most successful project to date has been in Ghana, where start-up funding and support has been provided to a local company called Toyola Energy. The company manufactures a stove which uses charcoal 40 per cent more efficiently than conventional cook stoves.

"From its beginnings as a simple tree-sheltered operation in a community outside Ghana's capital Accra, Toyola Energy has grown dramatically, increasing sales from 3,000 to over 35,000 units per annum within four years," said Steiner. "By 2010, the company had supplied over 50,000 households in six regions of Ghana with improved energy-efficient stoves, and expanded their market to neighbouring countries."


Toyola Energy has also generated 200 jobs, directly and indirectly, while its stoves have reduced carbon dioxide emissions by some 15,000 tons annually. A key factor in its success was its partnership with UNEP, which is able to raise donor awareness and co-funding, and to provide needed policy reforms to assist small- to medium-sized enterprises.

Without such financial support, clean energy systems, including more efficient cook stoves, can be too expensive for the rural poor, despite fuel savings and the multiple health and environmental benefits. A cook stove can cost up to $5 or much more -- way too costly for someone living on less than $2 a day.

UNEP was confronted with this reality when it was looking to bring solar power to rural India, where many banks considered loans to the rural poor too risky. With support from the UN Foundation and the Shell Foundation, UNEP's Solar Loan Programme made those loans affordable.

Between 2003 and 2008, there were 100,000 stoves in areas with no electricity grid which were able to acquire solar power. The initiative proved so successful it is now self-financing. Today, 20 banks with networks of 2,000 branches are offering competitive solar loans.

UNEP is also supporting a black carbon and cook stoves demonstration project called 'Project Surya' in rural areas of India. Having completed its pilot phase in a rural village with 500 households and some 2,500 people, Surya's demonstration phase began in 2010. It will last two years and involve two to three rural areas spread from north to south India, each with a population of 15,000 people. Pilot phases are also being developed for other developing countries, such as Bhutan, Nepal and Kenya.