Eradicating poverty and climate change are two of the fundamental challenges of the century. The central question remains how to translate hope and good intentions into reality.
In its most concrete sense, poverty is the lack of basic capacity to function effectively in society.
Poverty is complex. It means not having adequate shelter, not being able to see a doctor when sick, not having access to school and not knowing how to read, losing a child to illness brought about by poor water, sanitation and other services. Poverty is often described as an economic condition, and yet income is not the only factor that influences quality of life. Some societies have achieved improved standards of living with relatively low average income levels.
Lack of access to electricity is one of the indicators of poverty. In the African context, the broad correlation between energy access and levels of economic development is well recognised. The lack of access to modern energy services for most Africans constitutes a major obstacle to development, and more importantly, to sustainable development.
It means that neither schools nor health clinics can function properly. It means access to clean water and sanitation is constrained without effective capacity, to the detriment of the health of citizens. It means that productive economic activities that could help people out of poverty are severely compromised.
I am not arguing that the consumption levels of the average African should rise to the same level as that of the resident in Manhattan – far from it.
Indeed, the implications of a world in which an estimated 9 billion people all achieve the consumption levels expected in the OECD countries, is simply not desirable as the planet cannot sustain it.
So how to address the fundamental and complex problems of energy and poverty in Africa? Some propagandise that increased use of coal for power production in energy-poor countries is a major part of the solution. Those advocates clearly have no understanding of poverty, nor of energy poverty.
In African countries, such as my home country of Mali, populations are often sparsely settled in remote and rural areas. Most people rely for their livelihood on small-scale farming systems and small and medium-sized businesses. For these, an energy supply is required.
Renewable energy sources are the only credible option to rapidly overcome this complex situation. The technologies of those sources of energy are already cost-competitive, with many conventional fossil-fuel based systems such as coal, particularly when fossil fuel subsidies and environmental and social externalities are factored in.
The power system has historically been designed to connect a small number of large generation plants in one direction with a large customer base.
This way of providing electricity has significant capital and operating costs and is inflexible, making it a challenge for most of the African utilities. The approach is also limited in terms of reaching people and communities in rural areas, small scale farming systems, micro and small-scale businesses. The result is that up to 90 per cent of the rural population in African countries has no grid connection – a situation that will worsen if we continue with business as usual.
Renewable energy sources can be harnessed everywhere, by and for households, communities and businesses. Modular or phased approaches for scaling up generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure are gaining in popularity as costs drop and experience with new business models grows.
Leap-frogging to “smart” technologies will allow African countries to avoid increasingly outdated technologies while addressing local and national energy service requirements. By promoting distributed, decentralised solutions in addition to large-scale generation, renewable energy expansion can take place rapidly and across the whole continent.
Climate change is already having adverse impacts on Africa, with negative implications on human health, development, poverty and security in the region.
The latest science shows that we have a narrow window to change.
In African countries, distributed renewable energy systems offer an unprecedented opportunity to increase energy access and bring light and power to places in the world most in need.
Youba Sokona is special adviser for sustainable development at South Centre, an intergovernmental organisation of developing countries, and is currently in Australia as part of an International Panel on Climate Change working group.
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