Is the link between energy and poverty regarding climate change truly relevant?

Currently, the world is fighting to find answers that will assist in both saving the planet from global warming and providing efficient energy to those who can’t afford it. Both issues are incredibly important and demand an immediate solution. However, is this to say that both topics can be lumped together in an effort to catch two birds with one stone?

There are a few folks who seem to fall on separate lines when it comes to the issue of energy and how it can be used to assist those in poverty. We all know that a realistic, reliable, and an expeditious solution to affordable and efficient electricity is necessary throughout the world. We also understand that a simple solution has to be provided in regard to how this same energy can be provided to areas that fall outside of grid extensions. Furthermore, we can’t help but agree that the world is suffering from climate change and that we must find a solution that will work for everyone: regardless of economic status.  It seems like a lot to pack into one punch; however, this is exactly what some experts are attempting to do.

Recently, Bill Gates discussed this issue in a blog detailing how energy and its link to poverty contributed to the problems surrounding climate change. He made valiant points surrounding the need for energy to be provided to those in poor communities around the world. Gates even gave parallels to climate change by stating that “without electricity, people cook by burning dirty fuels like charcoal, cardboard or dung” and that “this pollutes the air and causes respiratory problems, particularly in children.” Without a doubt, electricity is very necessary to those who live in poor communities. Medications that need to be refrigerated become tainted, surgeries performed by candlelight become botched, and meals cooked with cardboard or dung further endanger the environment. It is most imperative that a solution on the distribution of energy to the poor be developed and implemented. With this, can we say that such a solution will save the planet? Well, this depends on whether the amount of harm to the environment is heavily weighted on those poor communities. According to most environmental experts, the burning of dung just isn’t enough to state that the link between energy and poverty is sufficient to the destruction of our climate.

When looking upon the solutions most given for providing energy to those in poverty, many—including Gates—seem to believe that grid extensions make the most sense because it can ensure electricity to those who are in dire need. There are many solutions provided on exactly how these types of factories could be established to serve the poor, however, no one seems to address the biggest elephant in the room: how long such a process will take to develop before it can provide immediate service to those in need. Given this fact, many environmental experts are suggesting that the attention falls away from grid extensions, and instead, be placed on more viable solutions that will serve poor communities more swiftly.

Kids in Senegal study by candlelight

Kids in Senegal study by candlelight. Photo taken by the author.

Currently, solar solutions are overshadowing many conversations regarding the most viable application in providing energy to those who can’t afford it. The concept of providing electricity to the poor without waiting on the government to secure billions of dollars for power plants, or without waiting years for the electricity to become available in a poverty-stricken area, is of grave concern to many. There are those who feel that solar products will not only provide immediate electricity for those in need, but it will also do so without the uncertainty attached to grid extensions.  According to Jigar Shah, the co-founder of US solar company SunEdison, “The World Bank’s Lighting Africa program clocked a 95% compound annual growth rate for solar products being sold beyond the grid in sub-Saharan Africa. In Bangladesh, the wildly successful IDCOL solar program has installed 3 million solar home systems at a whopping 60% compound annual growth rate over the past decade. After much deliberation, even the dispassionate new Prime Minister of India decided against grid extension in favor of using distributed energy to meet his 2019 goal of electrifying every family.” With such numbers of positive outcomes, solar products will be the chosen solution in providing much needed electricity to those in poverty.

When considering the solution for providing energy to those in need, we can’t afford to confuse the issue with that of climate change. Many major factors contribute to the warming of our planet, and those in poor communities are rarely the cause. Rather than combining the issues of how we can provide electricity to the poor with that of how we can save the planet, we should instead focus on the best energy alternatives. Until we are all on the same page, we will only delay the advancement of energy efficiency for all.

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