In 2019, almost one billion people worldwide live without access to electricity. This is about 13 per cent of the global population, most of whom are in Sub-Saharan Africa and developing areas of Asia.
The United Nations has a development goal of providing the world’s entire population with reliable electricity by 2030. But can this goal be met sustainably? This is one of the most important questions facing the developing world at present, not least because these areas are some of the most at risk due to the changing climate. Is it possible to develop sustainably?
The benefits of electrification are obvious and many. An estimated four million deaths occur annually as a result of household air pollution caused by burning simple biomass fuel for cooking and warmth. This is easily avoidable with reliable access to an electricity grid. For example, Kenya and Bangladesh have both had significant increases in electrification - 73 per cent of Kenya’s population now has access to electricity compared to just 8 per cent in 2000, and 80 per cent of Bangladesh now has access to electricity, up from 20 per cent in 2000.
This change directly corresponds with measures of health and wealth and each country. Child mortality rates decreased from 105 per thousand live births to 46 in Kenya, and from 87 per thousand to 32 in Bangladesh. GDP per capita in Kenya has grown from $404 USD in 2000 to $1595 in 2017, and from $406 USD to $1,516 in Bangladesh. Of course, correlation does not equate to causation, and economists still debate whether access to electricity improves GDP per capita or vice versa. Whatever the case, it is clear that increasing access to electricity vastly improves quality of life.
Are we on track for 2030?
Global access to electricity is steadily increasing. In 1990, more than 1.5 billion people lacked access to electricity - 50 per cent more than the present number. The improvement has not, however, been even. The vast majority of gains have been made in Asia, whereas Sub-Saharan Africa languishes behind. In 2016, only 43 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population had access to electricity, including less than 20 per cent of the rural population. Its electrification rate has risen during the last 20 years at an average of 0.8 per cent year-on-year, which, if extrapolated, leaves it desperately short of meeting full electrification by 2030.
So how is this extra electricity generated? In 2000, 87 per cent of Bangladesh’s power was generated from gas. By 2014, this had increased to 91 per cent and total power consumption had almost quadrupled. During the same time period, Kenya decreased its use of oil in percentage terms, but the raw amount of oil used more than doubled as the country significantly industrialised.
The climate issue
The need for mass-electrification is often viewed as at odds with environmentalism. Commentators have lambasted the ecological movement for demanding that developing nations electrify using only renewables, ignoring the fact that global powers became rich through the use and abuse of fossil fuels. It is rightly questioned whether powerful and privileged nations and organisations have the moral authority to deny others the same opportunity. Whilst basic power can often be provided sustainably at a household level, such as micro-hydro projects in Nepal, industry of the scale required to significantly alleviate poverty requires major energy infrastructure, currently primarily represented by thermal coal.
Of course, fossil fuels cannot be relied upon indefinitely. The developing world has the largest vulnerability to a changing climate. Sub-Saharan Africa’s high rates of malnutrition and disease will increase with a warming climate. Rising sea levels, an increasing frequency of natural disasters and a population centred on the coast will spell disaster in much of Asia. Rain-fed agriculture will no longer be sustainable as a primary source of food and income for a large portion of either region’s population. This paints a dire picture of the future - industrialise at the cost of suffering the nightmarish consequences of a changing climate. Is this an inescapable paradox of damned-if-we-do and damned-if-we-don’t?
What can we do?
The future is not all bleak. The developed world must take the responsibility its wealth commands and take the leading role in transitioning away from carbon. Research and development intense economies such as Japan, Korea, Israel and the Scandinavian nations should lead both regional and global collaboration to develop improved renewable technologies. Small-scale renewables have a critical role to play in reducing health issues like the deaths caused by burning biofuel for cooking, and larger-scale hydropower is already being developed through much of the developing world; it is even an exportable commodity for countries such as Laos.
Subsidising the implementation oversight of further renewable technologies in the developing world will be the next step, as well as providing ongoing technical advice to allow developing economies to ease more smoothly into large-scale electrification. This will better equip nations to manage the inherent logistical challenges of large-scale electrical grids.
This process will not be easy, as fossil fuel powerbrokers prove reluctant to relinquish their grip on the world’s energy industry. It is, however, necessary in order to achieve the dual goals of reducing our reliance on carbon and ensuring that the world’s population has access to electricity, health services, education and a liveable income.
Liam Rawson is the Climate and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.