To meet UN Millennium Development Goals, fight energy poverty, report says

The chief economist for the International Energy Agency says the international community must mobilize to target the 1.4 billion people worldwide without electricity, and to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Mike Segar/Reuters
Austria's President Heinz Fischer speaks during the Millennium Development Goals Summit at the UN headquarters in New York on Sept. 21.

An estimated 1.4 billion people worldwide lack access to electricity – and the majority of them will remain in the dark indefinitely unless the international donor community reallocates hundreds of millions of dollars over the next two decades, according to the chief economist of the International Energy Agency.

“If there is no major breakthrough, despite growth in global economy, in 2035 there will be 1.2 billion people who will still have no access to electricity,” says Fatih Birol, top economist for the autonomous group that monitors worldwide energy supply and demand.

Unless action is taken to extend access to electricity – and, by extension, clean cooking facilities – Dr. Birol says the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2015 may well fail. Meeting the goal would not only end extreme poverty, he adds, but decrease political instability, link the world socially through mediums such as the Internet, and boost gender equality.

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Birol spoke ahead of his presentation today of the IEA World Energy Outlook 2010 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting. It includes a special report, "Ending Energy Poverty: How to make modern energy access universal,” which says donors must invest an additional $756 billion (or $36 billion annually) to achieve universal access to modern energy by 2030.

This estimate relies on projections for purchasing technology such as advanced biomass cooking stoves ($45 apiece) or biogas digesters (about $400 apiece). Much of this money could come through repurposing fossil fuel subsidies, according to the IEA report, as the annual average investment required, $36 billion, is about 12 percent of spending in 2009 on fossil-fuel subsidies in 37 countries analyzed.

"Unless new and dedicated policies are put into place, conditions for the lives of billions of people are not expected to improve," according to the report.

Some politicians and leaders argue that increased energy consumption will drive up oil demand and pollution. Birol disagrees, saying that the resultant increase of oil and CO2 output would be less than 1 percent apiece.

In fact, cutting down on use of traditional biomass for cooking would improve air quality for millions of people. Some 60 percent of people in urban areas of Sub-Saharan Africa use wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues, and animal dung to cook. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1.45 million people die prematurely each year from household air pollution because of inefficient biomass combustion.

"A significant proportion of these are young children, who spend many hours each day breathing smoke pollution from the cookstove," the report states. "Today, the number of premature deaths from household air pollution is greater than the number of premature deaths from malaria or tuberculosis."

Despite the alarming figures, Birol says the donor community appears to lack the will to take concrete steps yet.

"At this juncture, I do not see the wind is blowing in the right direction," he says. "If not this year, maybe next year. We are going to push."

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