Feature Report: Access to Energy: A Crucial Test for Our Planet's Future

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Access to Energy: Strong Regional Differences Persist

Water, food, healthcare and education are all fundamental human needs, but they cannot be met without access to one common denominator: energy. Unfortunately, access to this is sorely lacking in emerging economies and the least developed countries.

Access to Energy: Strong Regional Differences Persist
Some 2.8 billion people worldwide still lack access to clean cooking and heating installations, mostly in poor or unstable regions. ©AFP PHOTO - DESIREY MINKOH

Access to Electricity and Clean Cooking Installations

Two criteria are usually used when assessing whether residents of a given region have suitable access to energy. The first is whether or not electricityForm of energy resulting from the movement of charged particles (electrons) through a conductor... is available. The second is whether or not they have modern heating and cooking installations.

According to the World Bank and the United Nations, an estimated 1.3 billion people out of the global population of seven billion still do not have access to electricity. Almost half of these people –some 600 million – live in sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for two-thirds of the population there. A further 300 million or so live in India, and just as many elsewhere in Asia. While China has almost completely resolved its electrification problems, with only eight million people now without access, Latin America still counts some 30 million.1

1.3 billion people worldwide still do not have access to electricity

Access to heating and clean cooking installations is so crucial because makeshift stoves and open fires cause severe indoor air pollution, leading to two million premature deaths a year, mostly women and children. It is estimated that 2.8 billion people still rely on fuelwood, charcoalCharcoal is carbon produced by the pyrolysis of wood in the absence of oxygen..., animal waste and coalCoal is ranked by its degree of transformation or maturity, increasing in carbon content from... for cooking and heating needs, all of which emit large amounts of pollutants and CO2See Carbon Dioxid. The situation remains serious in China (over 400 million people affected), sub-Saharan Africa (around 700 million people affected), and India in particular (over 870 million people affected). In Latin America, the problem impacts around 85 million people.

Developed, often temperate regions of the world no longer have to worry about accessing energy, but rather about affording it – a phenomenon known as 'fuelFuel is any solid, liquid or gaseous substance or material that can be combined with an oxidant... poverty' (See Close-up: "Fuel Poverty, A Serious Yet Elusive Problem"). Instead, the problem is now concentrated in tropical and equatorial countries. Here electricity is generally available in cities – despite often frequent powerIn physics, power is the amount of energy supplied by a system per unit time. In simpler terms, power can be viewed as energy output... cuts – but remains extremely patchy in rural areas. But electricity is essential for all human activities, from pumping and recyclingAny waste treatment process that uses materials from identical or similar end-of-life products or manufacturing waste to produce new products. groundwater to powering clinics and schools. Without it, people cannot turn their lights on when it gets dark early, meaning they cannot do the artisanal work they rely on to guarantee basic living standards. 

A Moderate Cost Impacted by Demographics

Providing universal access to energy would not come at a substantial cost. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who was behind the 2011 Sustainable Energy For All initiative, estimated that it could be achieved with less than $50 billion a year from now to 2030. While this is five times the amount invested in energy access in 2010, it still only represents 3% of all global investment in the energy sector. From this yearly amount, only $4 billion to $5 billion would be needed to significantly improve cooking installations.

The International Energy Agency (IEA)An independent, intergovernmental organization founded within the framework of the OECD..., however, is less optimistic, particularly regarding Africa. While the continent's power generation capacity will grow fourfold by 2040, giving 950 million people in sub-Saharan Africa access to electricity, another 530  million will remain without. This is because by then the population of Africa will have doubled to 1.2 billion.2

Energy Needs Vary Over Time

Universal access to energy could be achieved with just 3% of global investment in the energy sector.

Energy needs vary from region to region, but also over time. After making its way into even the remotest areas, the cell phone revolution has created a demand for specific recharging equipment and batteries.

In recent years, the need for minimum levels of well-being has been compounded by growing demand for mobility, both for people and for goods. As the number of cars on the road is directly linked to a country's economic wealth, it is rising dramatically in rapidly growing emerging economies but not in poorer ones. Highly industrialized Vietnam, for example, has a large amount of road traffic, while its more rural neighbor Cambodia does not. The world auto fleet recently passed the billion vehicle mark. Chinese vehicles made up 10% of this in 2012, with their share set to double before 2020. By then, European, American and Japanese vehicles will have dropped down to 42% from 53% today. 

 

Sources : 

(1) Word Bank  and  Secretary-General of the United Nations

(2) AIE - World Energy Outlook 2014