Tackling the ethical issue of eradicating energy poverty

Tackling the ethical issue of eradicating energy poverty

Tackling the ethical issue of eradicating energy poverty
Saudi Minister of Energy Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman. (AFP/File)
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Last month, arguments heated between global energy ministers assembled in Goa, India, during the G20 meetings. As talks over climate change and energy transition approached, a delegate pointed to the nexus between ethics and climate change from a very narrow perspective. A response came from a high-level Saudi official on how the world should address the issue of ethics in the road to energy transition.

Saudi Arabia’s Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said: “Those who talk about morals while we are discussing energy transition are overlooking the most important ethical issue that millions of people on this planet suffer from, which is energy poverty.” 

Interestingly, India, the host country, suffers from energy poverty, though they have come a long way in eliminating it.

In Goa, the discussion about climate change raged, as if the 17 goals of sustainable development were confined to one, the 13th goal: “climate action”. Even when the seventh goal — “energy for all” — was discussed, the objective was apparently an entry point to talk about climate change and the disposal of fossil fuels in particular.

In fact, some delegates, overwhelmed with enthusiasm, entered into sermon on ethics when discussing energy transition. That is why Prince Abdulaziz went out of his way to emphasize that the overlooked ethical issue, by some people, is that nearly 700 million people around the world are deprived of electrical energy.

It is fortunate for those who believe in the defense of this humanitarian cause that the International Energy Agency issued on July 26 its report titled “A Vision for Clean Cooking Access for All.” The 80-page report addresses one aspect of energy poverty, and highlights that nearly 700 million people lack access to clean energy, and nearly 2.3 billion people are still burning firewood, farm waste and animals for cooking.

This causes the death of nearly 4 million people annually, most of them women and children, as a result of pollution, according to the agency’s report, quoting the World Health Organization.

The lack of modern cooking stoves is one of the most important manifestations of the problem of energy poverty. The agency’s report reviews it and shows that the provision of modern cooking stoves is not a technical problem; the solution depends on three elements: leadership, a level of awareness among the population and access to financing. Moreover, given the concentration of the problem in sub-Saharan Africa, concessional financing is an essential element in combating the problem. What is concerning from the report at this stage are two things.

Firstly, how do the development funds in the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries’ member states receive this report, especially those funds tasked by OPEC heads of states to follow up on energy poverty during OPEC’s third summit in Riyadh in November 2007?

Secondly, to what extent will the dimensions of the problem, as depicted in the agency’s report, be reflected in the final statement of the G20 summit, which India is hosting this year?

At last year’s G20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali, Indonesia, the G20 group leaders dedicated a clause for energy poverty in the declaration. They pledged to implement the seventh goal of the sustainable development goals and to eliminate energy poverty without any clear action plan. Rather, the rest of the item broadly covers the issue of climate change and the Paris Agreement instead of focusing on the issue of energy poverty.

What is hoped for by those who follow this humanitarian issue with its moral dimension, as Prince Abdulaziz called for, is for the leaders to commit and allocate a separate clause for energy poverty, methods to eliminate it in clear language and a plan that can be monitored and measured. This ensures more just, equitable and fair energy transition for all.

Suleiman Al-Herbish is former director general of the OPEC Fund for International Development (OFID).

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