Ending energy poverty

November 01, 2007|By Margo Thorning

Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize will elevate his international platform to pursue his "Global Marshall Plan" to use the climate change debate to address other international crises. As he pursues a consensus on curbing greenhouse gases among developed nations, he should not overlook the glaring problem that much of the world's poor today lack access to basic, modern energy. In fact, meeting the world's growing demand for energy would require investment of $20 trillion over the next two decades, according to the International Energy Agency.

Developed nations haven't paid much attention to the need to increase clean energy supplies to the world's poorest inhabitants, many of whom live on less than a dollar a day. But because economic development requires energy, increasing the supply of clean energy for the poor should be a top priority.

Today, 2.5 billion people use wood, charcoal, agricultural waste and animal dung to meet most of their daily energy needs for cooking and heating. In many countries, these resources account for more than 90 percent of total household energy consumption.

About 1.3 million people - mostly women and children - die prematurely every year because of exposure to indoor air pollution from burning biomass for fuel. In countries where local prices have adjusted to recent high international energy prices, the shift to cleaner, more efficient ways of cooking has slowed and even reversed.

According to the International Energy Agency, one-third of the world's population will still be relying on biomass for cooking and heating in 2030 - a share barely smaller than today's - and there will still be 1.4 billion people in the world without electricity.

Urgent action is needed to encourage the safer, more efficient and sustainable use of traditional biomass and to help people switch to modern cooking fuels and technologies. Vigorous and concerted government action, with support from the industrialized countries, together with increased funding from both public and private sectors, is needed to achieve this target, according to Faith Birol, the IEA's chief economist.

Reducing the extreme energy poverty of the world's poor will take a combination of technology transfer and public-private partnerships between wealthy and less-developed nations. Rather than looking to regulatory mandates to address climate change, such as cap and trade proposals, policymakers at every level should look instead to international partnerships with developing nations. Partnering to encourage investment in clean energy technologies that have profit potential is the key to energy security, environmental protection and the reduction of global energy poverty.

One promising model is the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, or AP6, consisting of Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and the United States. This partnership focuses on industries primarily responsible for global warming to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions.

Extending AP6's framework to include other countries that are major emitters would allow developed nations to focus their efforts where they will get the largest return - reducing emissions for the least cost. For example, providing liquefied petrol gas cylinders and stoves to those who use biomass for cooking would boost world oil demand a mere 1 percent, costing at most $18 billion a year, according to Mr. Birol. The value of saving 1.3 million lives each year, as well as the health and environmental improvements, is surely worth the cost.

The fact that AP6 encourages the development of private sector incentives to increase energy efficiency and reduce emissions underscores how a market-driven approach could expand the use of clean energy technologies without top-heavy regulation.

Such international partnerships will help satisfy humanity's growing energy needs with cleaner technology, showing that greenhouse gases can be cut on a global scale without sacrificing economic growth. And the world's poor can benefit by gaining access to the basic, cleaner energy sources essential for their health and life.

Margo Thorning is managing director of the International Center for Capital Formation, a think tank that focuses on public policies that promote saving and investment in the private sector. Her e-mail is drthorning@accf.org.

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