The permanently emblazoned image of poverty is a toddler in some faraway place, his tattered clothes soiled by the filth in which he sits, imploring you to help with a sad look in his big, beautiful eyes. NGOs and charity organizations have perfected poverty porn, or the exploitation of portraits of the poor, for their fight in the longest-standing human conflict: the global war on poverty. Governments, private companies and individuals have spent trillions of dollars on these campaigns, yet poverty remains the most unfortunate reality of the modern world.
Though efforts to resolve the issue often revolve around food aid or healthcare, the true building block of development is access to adequate energy. Over 3.5 billion people, nearly half of the world’s population, experience energy poverty, defined as the lack of access to sufficient, reliable sources of energy that are necessary to provide even the most basic human needs. “Access to energy is absolutely fundamental in the struggle against poverty,” said World Bank Vice President Rachel Kyte at the 2014 Vienna Energy Forum. “It is energy that lights the lamp that lets you do your homework, that keeps the heat on in a hospital, that lights the small businesses where most people work. Without energy, there is no economic growth, there is no dynamism and there is no opportunity.”
In addition to impeding economic progress, energy poverty contributes to a global health crisis. For 40 percent of the world’s population, simply cooking food or heating homes is far more threatening to health than poor sanitation, water quality or smog. Traditional cookstoves, for example, are usually fueled by wood or animal dung, which release toxic smoke when burned. Traditional heating and cooking practices kill as many as four million people each year due to respiratory illness, most of whom are women and children. This total is more than the amount of deaths caused by malaria (1.2 million) and HIV/AIDS (1.5 million) combined. Powering homes with modern energy sources rather than traditional ones would prevent these deaths.
The United Nations Sustainable Energy for All Initiative (SE4ALL), founded in 2011, has set forth three objectives in its campaign against energy poverty: providing universal access to modern energy sources, improving energy efficiency and doubling the share of renewable energy in the world market. Progress has been made on each of these fronts, but in the quest embodied in the UN Millennium Development Goals to halve extreme poverty by 2015, the UN is going to fall short. Its insistence on renewable energy sources is partially responsible for these shortcomings. Wind power has grown annually at an average rate of 25 percent and solar power by 11.4 percent worldwide since 1990. Although renewable energy projects are by no means a failed effort, they still meet less than 1 percent of global energy consumption needs. Needless to say, SE4ALL’s objective to double the share of renewable energy in global energy consumption will hardly make a dent in eradicating energy poverty.
Numerous advocacy groups have recognized the importance of electricity in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals. These goals place a premium on introducing electricity to impoverished areas as quickly as possible, but the focus on renewables is not the way to do so. Instead, the most viable system is one driven largely by coal. South Africa’s coal-based system is an exemplar of success; from 1990 to 2011, Johannesburg invested heavily in coal, to the point where it accounted for 90 percent of all new energy sources. During that period, access to electricity more than doubled, from being accessible to 30 percent of the population in 1990 to 75 percent by 2011. During that same time, GDP tripled, per capita income rose and illiteracy decreased dramatically. With a stable energy system in place — and access to it available for millions of the formerly energy poor — the South African government can now begin to take steps to mitigate the environmental impact of its actions.
Coal as a primary fuel source is a proven impetus for growth and development, but it is often criticized as a pollutant. However, while wind and solar power are heralded for being near-zero emitters of carbon dioxide, their tiny share of total global energy production makes their effect on curbing emissions minuscule. As alternative fuel sources like these become increasingly viable due to technological improvements, fossil fuels will undoubtedly be replaced, and the impact of alternative energy can grow. Given the current state of renewable energy technology, though, this shift is still decades away. For now, the most effective method may be the improvement of coal combustion efficiency and the implementation of clean coal technologies. Increasing the efficiency of coal-fired power plants by as little as 5 percent would reduce carbon dioxide output by 8 percent — a return on investment that is both immediate and influential.
The development of clean coal technologies has been incredible thus far. In the United States, advanced clean coal technologies have reduced emissions by 89 percent since 1970, even while coal use nearly tripled and GDP doubled in that same period. If environmentalists are serious about reducing humans’ impact on the environment, then fossil fuels should no longer be seen as a public enemy. Quite possibly, the answer to ending world poverty and creating a cleaner natural world lies in coal.
Devotion to renewables as the power source to alleviate energy poverty is ultimately an injustice to the impoverished. Renewables are neither powerful nor reliable enough — at least with the technology available today — to be the solution, whereas coal-fired power plants have the capacity to provide affordable, efficient and reliable energy that would lift millions out of poverty. World leaders have been patient as renewable technology slowly becomes more practical and economically viable, but patience is a luxury the poor do not have. The emphasis on developing renewable energy technology is irresponsible, shifting the focus from improving the lives of those in poverty to combating climate change. Energy poverty is a humanitarian crisis that affects billions at this very moment, and our first priority should be to alleviate it.
Art by Julia Ladics