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Renewable energy: solution to energy poverty, climate change and ecosystem impacts

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Women building solar cookers at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India.

By Gaurav Dahal and Gabriella Roscher

Clean, affordable and reliable energy access is one of the most important requisites for decent livelihoods, next to water and food. Unfortunately, our current energy system excludes a major portion of world’s population from this fundamental right.

Ecosystem health is closely linked to social systems, as people directly and indirectly depend on the diversity of services that nature provides. They, in turn, impact the ecosystem – either positively or negatively.

Many of the world’s vulnerable ecosystems and areas of high biodiversity that are under threat are also home to rural communities and indigenous people whose livelihoods and cultures are dependent on the natural environment.

Those rural communities and indigenous people are the closest guardians of the integrity of those ecosystems – but forced by poverty and social hardship, they might contribute to the destruction of those ecosystems. Because of this, conservation efforts need to not only maintain and preserve biodiversity and ecosystems, but also ensure equitable and sustainable development for the well-being of the people who connect with them.

Climate change and energy

Climate change is affecting people around the planet, but is particularly wreaking havoc on developing nations and the world’s poorest communities. Erratic rainfall patterns, severe drought, increased flooding and warmer temperatures are putting serious pressure on people who rely on agriculture and natural resources for their livelihood. Improving the well-being of these people is the best way to help them adapt to climate change and be resilient.

Energy access and climate issues can be positively linked. For instance, non-polluting and highly efficient cook stoves and other advanced biomass systems for cooking reduce the need for woody and other biomass by more than 50 per cent compared to traditional cook stoves. This would avoid major emissions of black carbon from inefficient biomass burning, responsible for indoor pollution, additional global warming and ice-melting in particular.

Energy poverty is one of the most important obstacles to social and economic development for the poor, next to lack of access to clean water and food. Our current energy system leaves a major portion of the world’s population behind. In some poor energy importing countries, the high costs of fossil fuels now eats up more than 10 per cent of the GDP and makes conventional energy increasingly unaffordable for many.

About 1.3 billion people (mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and South-Asia) only have erratic or no access to electricity. In the same regions, some 2.6 billion people depend on unsustainable biomass and dung for heat and cooking, which has major impacts on ecosystems and human health.

Girls and women are particularly affected since in many developing countries they spend lots of time collecting regionally available bioenergy sources — time they cannot use for education or jobs.

Clean, highly efficient renewable energy is one key pillar to better livelihoods and health, improved education and gender balance and better learning conditions, which in turn can facilitate environmental protection.

Sustainable energy solutions

Sustainable energy access, through the adoption of renewable energy, sustainable practices and energy efficiency, will help the conservation of ecosystems, the adaptation of communities to climate change, and in the global effort to lower emissions.

Not only are people who suffer most from climate change often energy-poor, but the way billions of people will access modern sources of energy will have a long lasting impact on the energy sector and climate as well. Access to renewable and sustainable energy will benefit energy-poor people and the planet.

The right of every person on Earth to have immediate access to clean, affordable and reliable energy is non-negotiable. And it has been shown that most of that will be renewable energy – simply because it is the most economic option.

To help accelerate the process of achieving a world powered by 100 per cent renewable energy by 2050, WWF is engaging with key governments around the world to encourage them to agree to take steps to end energy poverty by 2030.

The essence of this strategy is to demonstrate that there are viable, sustainable energy access solutions for energy-poor people in developing countries – and to encourage these solutions to be replicated and scaled up in different areas.

This can help build a world where countries are committed to focusing on energy access and taking a renewable energy / zero carbon path. In that spirit, WWF strongly welcomes and supports Goal 7 of the Sustainable Development Goals, which contains the phasing-out of energy poverty in developing countries by 2030 at the latest.

We only have one planet. We need to live on it sustainably. This requires combined action which tackles poverty, climate change and ecosystems. Energy access cuts through all three issues – and renewable energy can provide an answer.

Find out more in WWF’s ‘Sustainable Livelihoods’ report.

Gaurav Dahal is Coordinator, Energy Access for Developing Countries for WWF International’s Global Climate and Energy Initiative. He is based in New Delhi, India.

Gabriella Roscher is the senior manager for Climate and Energy at WWF-Switzerland. She is based in Zurich, Switzerland.

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How renewables can help tackle poverty, climate change and ecosystems in a sustainable way:

Sustainable livelihoods: how renewables can help people and the planet

We have one planet. Renewable energy can help us live on it sustainably.

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