Energy is critical to development and essential for practically all aspects of human life. Whilst various factors such as clean water, adequate sanitary and health facilities, a good education system and communication networks are necessary to overcome poverty, a reliable and inexpensive energy supply is fundamental. For example, electricity is vital for the running of hospitals. The processing of agricultural products and technical manufacturing also depend on the supply of energy. However, millions of people in the Global South do not have access to a sustainable, reliable source of energy and modern energy services, which represents a decisive constraint on development.
The concept of energy justice raises the question of to what extent access to energy and its usage should be shared out equally throughout the world. At present, access to energy and energy services are not fairly distributed: 3 billion people around the world, so more than a third of the world population, use wood, coal or dung (so-called “solid fuels”) as their main source of energy for cooking and heating. At least 1.2 billion people (16% of the global population) have no access to electricity at all. The question of sharing the burden of the effects of energy usage on humans, the natural environment and the climate is also crucial.
Every year, household air pollution, mostly caused by solid fuel used for cooking, causes 4.3 million premature deaths. People in the Global South spend up to a third of their total household spending on energy. And it is the women and girls who spend up to six hours a day on energy-related activities such as the collection of firewood and water, cooking and processing agricultural products.
"In fact, no country in modern times has substantially reduced poverty without a massive increase in its use of energy and/ or a shift to efficient energy sources."
Around 80% of present-day energy production is still supplied by fossil fuels, threatening both the local and global environment and leading to extensive social inequalities. The combustion of fossil fuels contributes to air pollution, to the acidification of land and water, and consequently the contamination of drinking water, as well as to other unpredictable consequences of climate change.
Hopes are being pinned on renewable energies in the aim of becoming independent from fossil fuels and curbing the effects of climate change. They would also offer the opportunity for social and economic development through access to energy and energy services. Renewable energy sources include water, wind, sun, geothermal heat and biomass. In 2015, they are used to cover an estimated 19.3% of global final energy consumption. Renewable forms of energy can be combined, depending on local availability and possible uses.
Unfortunately, there are a few obstacles on the way: on one hand, renewable energies are generally more costly than conventional technologies. Nonetheless, these costs can be reduced through mass production or generation with newly-developed technologies. More importantly, the heavy subsidies for fossil fuels worldwide should be redirected towards renewable energies, to reflect the actual costs of both technologies. On the other hand, misconceptions and poor planning of renewable energies can also lead to a destruction of the environment for example through mega-projects, deforestation, eviction of small hold farmers or indigenous peoples, and competition for space between renewable energy sources and foodstuffs. However, in most cases, damage to the environment can be reduced either directly or indirectly: through small-scale local projects, smart energy planning, increased energy efficiency and energy sufficiency and generally by striving for energy democracy.
The complex and imperfect nature of the energy market means that it cannot simply be expected that the market forces alone ensure that energy services are sustainable and cater to the requirements of the neediest communities. Cooperation and partnerships between governments, public services, development agencies, civil society and the private sector are absolutely essential to ensure that more efficient energy systems are accessible to population groups living in poverty.
The Global North must play a pioneering role in investing in modern energy services. Cooperation between North and South means that technology transfer, competency development and strengthened financing of modern energy services can create a win-win situation for development, the environment and the climate.