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Make a Wish: Climate Change or Energy Poverty

Mats van Kleef's picture

Make a WishIf you could have just one wish, would you choose to solve climate change or energy poverty?

Resolving these two calamities is fundamental to the wellbeing of the planet and people. Climate change is caused mainly by the consumption of energy and the associated greenhouse gas emissions. Energy poverty is the lack of access to modern energy services. Helping 1.3 billion people access electricity and 2.6 billion people to have clean cooking facilities will greatly increase the world’s energy consumption and resulting GHG emissions. Spending money to mitigate climate change uses valuable resources that could more directly benefit the poor who have so little energy and such unhealthy cooking facilities. How do we address both energy poverty and climate change? This is as much an ethical dilemma as a technological challenge.

At first glance, action on these two issues seems to be strongly contradictory. The issues are hard enough to tackle individually, leave alone jointly.

A contentious TED Talk on funding global problems by Bjorn Lomborg summarizes the dilemma.

Fortunately, in comparing the two issues, choosing is a fallacy. We need to wish for both.

A powerful example of the interconnectedness of climate change and energy poverty can be seen in Haiti. The people of Haiti burn considerable amounts of biomass, in the form of charcoal, to meet their basic energy needs. This is an extreme case of energy poverty. Wood used to create charcoal is collected by clear-cutting the western forests on the island of Hispaniola. Satellite photos dramatically contrast the lush forests of the Dominican Republic to the wasteland of Haiti. Deforestation is catastrophic to both climate mitigation and adaptation.


Google Maps aerial photo demonstrating deforestation in Haiti

Distribution of alternative cooking stoves should be a priority in Haiti. Stoves can include Top-Lit Up Draft (TLUD) cooking stoves, which are cleaner and more efficient, or solar cookers. PV panels can simultaneously provide electricity to increase productivity hours.

Similar issues of addressing two big problems together can also be seen in high-income countries. Greece has already seen higher pollution levels as a result of the Eurozone debt crisis. As austerity measures kick-in, the Greek government raised heating costs and electricity taxes. For those already struggling financially, this led to illegal logging for wood as an energy source.

Even in rural northern Ontario, Canada, one of the world’s largest per capita energy consuming countries, diesel generators provide isolated communities with power. Production, transportation and end-use of this energy source create unnecessary pollution. This energy demand could be met economically with decentralized, renewable energy sources.

Investment in renewable energy addresses both energy poverty and climate change concurrently. The replacement of fossil fuels with cleaner sources of energy can reduce climate change even if total energy consumption increases. Equally important, further adoption of renewable energy will decrease production costs and increase use in developing countries, further reducing emissions while tackling energy poverty.

We can catch two birds with one stone. Replacing unsustainable logging for energy with renewable sources addresses both climate change and energy poverty. Even if previously energy poor people continue to increase their wealth and increase their energy consumption, with renewable energy sources the future can be cleaner and safer.

Whether you wish upon a star, toss a coin in a fountain or blow away an eyelash, sometimes wishes need each of us to help make them come true.

This is fourth in a series of blogs on energy issues written by 4th year energy systems students from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario. (See blog by Dan Hoornweg introducing the series.)

Make a Wish photo source: Lucy, Flicker Creative Commons.