The world currently is facing an unprecedented health crisis, and it is, as usual, vulnerable communities that are hit the hardest. Lack of access to electricity worsens humanitarian issues amid the COVID-19 pandemic and impedes the poor from securing social and economic opportunities.
In 2011, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on global governments, businesses and civil society organizations to work toward achieving universal access to modern energy services by 2030.
So crucial is the issue of energy access that the UN initiative known as Sustainable Energy for All (SEforALL) tracks global achievements to enable this to happen.
However, before announcing the UN initiative in 2007 during the third OPEC Summit in Riyadh, the late King Abdullah placed eradicating energy poverty on the summit’s agenda. In 2008, Saudi Arabia launched an initiative under the slogan “Energy for the Poor” with the goal of helping developing countries to meet the cost of energy for their people.
It is of a paramount importance that Saudi Arabia builds on its legacy with such initiatives to eradicate poverty by powering economies in developing countries. Currently, under its 2020 presidency for the G20, Saudi Arabia’s has renewed its commitment to empower people as a prime priority by creating better living conditions and access to cleaner, more sustainable and affordable energy to reduce poverty and promote economic growth.
Saudi Arabia’s proactive initiatives reflects its international commitment to recognizing human suffering around the globe, and bringing reliable, clean, affordable power source to those affected greatly by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will sharpen international collective action to fight poverty across the world.
On April 11, G20 held an extraordinary meeting of energy ministers to discuss timely issues amid the pandemic crisis. G20 energy ministers highlighted how COVID-19 has underpinned the response to the global health crisis in many counties because of energy access issues. Consequently, the G20 energy ministers have reaffirmed their commitment toward the importance of ensuring an uninterrupted and affordable supply of electricity to steer the pandemic response and quicken the recovery in developing and less developed counties. The G20 energy ministers have agreed to build on their collective efforts, and as they plan to meet late in September their discussions will continue on ways to enhance the life of impoverished people through energy access policies that promote economic development.
Electricity is the foundation and lifeline for communities and economies to run and thrive. There is growing international acknowledgement of the strong ties between poverty and lack of access to modern energy. For example, in impoverished communities, peoples’ well-being is in grave danger because of the use of dirty and very primitive fuels (animal waste). Moreover, rural women and young girls spend excessive time in collecting woods for fuel to meet their basic household needs. Where there is no modern source of power there is human suffering and lack of access to economic opportunities, health care or education. Access to electricity is key to lifting people out of poverty.
More than 840 million people now live without access to modern power and 2.8 billion people rely on polluting cooking and heating options to meet their daily heating and cooking needs. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest energy access rates in the world: 789 million people are living without any access to electricity. Forecasts show that even with current international efforts to achieve universal energy access, 650 million people will still be lacking electricity access by 2030. Without access to clean, modern sources of electricity power, it will be impossible to achieve the UN internationally agreed sustainable development goals (SDGs) to eradicate poverty and enable social and economic development.
For example, replacing open fires in poor communities with modern cooking stoves would save the lives of 800,000 children who die annually from exposure to indoor pollution. Women and girls are also threatened with sexual harassment when they go out to search for biomass fuel. That is why the SDG#7 call for action to “ensure access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030” is including universal access to electricity and clean cooking by 2030.
Energy poverty is twinned with poverty. The lack of access to sustainable modern and clean energy fuels and services is described as energy poverty. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), to lift people from poverty, energy access is fundamental in reducing poverty and improving health, increasing productivity, enhancing competitiveness and promoting economic growth. When one has access to affordable forms of energy, the vicious cycle around poverty eventually vanishes. Ending energy poverty will contribute to building better future opportunities such as job creation, economic growth, agriculture and education and health services.
Access to modern electricity power should not be the end in itself; it is about advancing inclusive bottom-up solutions that will enable sustainable development priorities to end poverty.
• Eaman Abdullah is a Saudi writer.