The goal of alleviating global poverty is not controversial. Poverty creates terrible human suffering and wasted human potential, and it’s urgent that we find solutions. Some solutions are obvious and widely popular, such as vaccines, free primary schooling and better nutrition. But we have also come to understand that energy is among the most important anti-poverty tools, an underpinning for other development goals. Yet energy access as a way to fight poverty is often greatly misunderstood.
We came to understand the importance of energy late, only as part of analyzing the potential for global decarbonization. The United Nations also came to this understanding in 2015 when it developed its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at “ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all.” Goal number seven: access to energy for all.
A hint at the challenges involved lies in the focus of SDG no. 7, or SDG7, on “affordable and clean energy.” This phrase conjures images of rooftop solar panels, kitchens illuminated with a single light bulb, and community wind turbines. These are important parts of fighting poverty, and they represent progress for people who rely on burning wood for heat and light. However, this basic level of energy access addresses only a tiny part of the greater challenge. It is the first step, not the destination. Yet the data indicator used by the U.N. to determine energy access success is minimum threshold of 50 kilowatt-hours per year. In other words, the goal would be considered met if a person in India or Senegal used as much energy in a whole year as an average American uses in just 33 hours.
This is not a way to eliminate global poverty—but other adjectives in SDG7 get us closer to a true solution: affordable, reliable and modern.
No one would argue that a single light bulb and cell phone charger are adequate to eliminate poverty. As a first step, however, they are critical. Light expands the hours available for both working and education and eliminates the burning of inefficient fuels that create health problems. Chargers increase connectivity and access to information. Economic development truly begins when energy expands to transform hard manual labor to other more productive pursuits. Energy that allows for the pumping of water, the reduction of indoor cooking over biofuels, and refrigeration of food is the next step in a community’s transformation. True economic development begins when energy can support farming, commercial development and, ultimately, industrialization. It’s tempting to romanticize rural, subsistence living, but those fantasies are a luxury of people who aren’t poor.
Access to reliable and abundant energy helps to create safe and prosperous communities. Widely available and safe medical care can proliferate. Productive agriculture fueled by effective fertilizer can feed growing populations. Enhanced infrastructure can enable efficient transport of goods and services. A more educated population can move countries away from labor and subsistence economies and retain and attract talent. None of this can happen without fuel, feedstock and reliable power. It is expanding access to modern energy that creates and expands the virtuous cycle of economic development.