Shy, yet alluring campaign-to-be seeks activists with GSOH for bad puns and world domination

December 7, 2010

     By Duncan Green     

Sarah Best is a policy adviser on low carbon development

One of the positive twists from climate change is that it has brought attention to a long-neglected issue: poor people’s access to energy. The scary realisation that we need gargantuan amounts of investment to meet rising energy demand and keep emissions levels safe, has alerted policy wonks and leaders to a glaring failure in current energy policy. This failure has left 1.5 billion people still without access to electricity and 3 billion people using traditional biomass (e.g. dung, wood) and coal for cooking.

This is a campaign-in-the-waiting whose time has surely come. The UN certainly thinks so. Earlier this year, an advisory group set up by Ban Ki Moon called for an international campaign to achieve universal energy access by 2030. Even the International Energy Agency has caught on and included a chapter on energy access in its vast annual bible on energy markets.

But to address the problem of energy access, we need to know what we’re all talking about. The headline numbers are good for shock value but don’t tell us much about how poor people use energy, what type of service they need to stay fed and healthy, and earn a living, or what indicators can be used to measure progress.

That is why last week’s report by Practical Action is so welcome. “Poor People’s Energy Outlook 2010” (PPEO) proposes a set of minimum “energy service” standards that people need. These relate to lighting, cooking and water heating, space heating, cooling, access to information and communications, and energy for earning a living. They’ve also developed a clever energy access index that measures progress on the supply side, in terms of household fuels, electricity and mechanical power. All this will be refined over time, but they could be great advocacy tools – which is part of the thinking behind the report.

One of the quandaries for people working in this area is how far to press the links between energy access and climate change. On one hand, the political attention on climate change and climate finance provides a golden opportunity to push the “energy access” agenda. On the other hand, it could cloud some already fuzzy thinking in this area.

One type of fuzzy thinking is that using clean energy to expand access is all about addressing greenhouse gas emissions in developing countries. Certainly, renewable energy technologies can be a good way to provide energy services for poor people. Solar panels in remote rural areas can be cheaper than extending the grid, not to mention avoiding the fumes and low-quality light of kerosene lamps. But mitigation has little to do with it: the PPEO highlights that, even if we only used fossil fuels to achieve universal energy access, this would still contribute less than 2% of global emissions.

Yet, donors seem to be going a bit gooey-eyed over supposed sweet-spots – looking for projects that simultaneously address climate adaptation, mitigation, energy access and poverty reduction.

There’s nothing wrong with addressing multiple problems at the same time – in fact, it’s a good thing. But I got an insight of what could happen if we don’t think clearly on this when I visited a primary school in northern Argentina earlier this year. The school had more bits of energy kit than it did students: two solar cookers (one used, one in storage); two solar water heaters (one used, one leaking); a solar heating and cooling system to regulate classroom temperatures (working); three solar panels (working); and one clay oven (used heavily, thanks to a porter who collected firewood daily so the children’s parents did not have to). The headmaster appreciated the school’s sponsor and the government programme which had installed these bits of kit. But what confounded him however was not just the duplication of efforts, but why all this was necessary when there were electricity grid lines running straight past the school just a few metres from the front door.

Picture contains: School director; solar water heater [left]; solar heating/cooling system [middle]; solar panels [rear]; out of view: grid transmission lines

Picture contains: School director; solar water heater [left]; solar heating/cooling system [middle]; solar panels [rear]; out of view: grid transmission lines.

Whether or not energy access is linked to climate change policy – or how exactly it is linked – this is definitely a campaign that needs to happen. In fact, it is surprising that campaigning hasn’t happened on any necessary scale before now, as it hits all the right popular messaging buttons.

Expanding energy access is obviously a ‘good thing’. The Millennium Development Goals can’t be achieved without it. There are “villains” aplenty: neglectful governments, affluent consumers and businesses gorging on energy subsidies, and confused donors and development banks who can’t decide whether to throw money at coal for growth or smaller-scale projects. We know what many of the barriers are and there are loads of ideas and disputes about how to overcome these (can it all be private sector-led? What role for subsidies?). Energy access involves not just technology (tick), which seems to captures people imagination more easily than weighty treaties, but also appropriate renewable energy technology (ticktickticktickticktick ad infinitum). Also, there’s loads of jargon and acronyms (do you know your CCS from your CSP from your SHS? No? Shame on you).

The issue of energy access just needs some activists. Oh, and some better puns. “Fossil fool” is good but the climate campaigners have cornered that one. A Google search on “energy jokes” didn’t give me much cause for hope. This was the best I could find (watch out, you need to channel Sean Connery for this one).

“What would a barefooted man get if he stood on an electric wire?”

Answer: “A pair of shocks”. Boo-boom.

December 7, 2010
Duncan Green