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The Missing MDG

Access to sustainable, affordable, and clean energy sources underpins the ability to realize all the Millennium Development Goals.

By Mary Weatherbee | October 12, 2010

CREDIT: Chris de Rham (CC).

The World Energy Forum held a conference on September 17 for corporations, diplomats, and students interested in addressing what the Forum believes to be the missing Millennium Development Goal: access to sustainable and affordable energy.

"Without a doubt, energy is in fact a prerequisite for other Millennium Development Goals," said Nebojsa Nakicenovic, deputy director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and professor of energy economics at Vienna University of Technology. Many environmental groups echo this sentiment and have lobbied for integrating access to sustainable energy with the MDGs.

The International Energy Agency, UN Development Program, and UN Industrial Development Organization collaborated on a report entitled "Energy Poverty: How to Make Modern Energy Access Universal." The document is an early release of excerpts from the World Energy Outlook 2010 and was targeted at the General Assembly's MDG deliberations. The group writes that the eradication of extreme poverty will never be realized without confronting the fact that "there are still billions of people without access to electricity or clean cooking facilities."

Speakers at the World Energy Forum (WEF) included innovators interested in addressing this crisis such as Dr. Shihab Kuran, president and CEO of the Jordanian energy company Petra Solar, who presented his company's approach to solar power generation.

Petra's SunWave system is designed for installation on existing utility poles and power lines, eliminating the need for vast acres of empty land and avoiding many of the costs of constructing complex energy farms. The installation process, Kuran says, takes about 20 minutes per unit.

Petra Solar is currently undertaking its largest solar electric project with Public Service Electric and Gas in New Jersey, which will result in the installation of 200,000 Petra SunWave systems on utility poles across New Jersey. When completed in 2013, this 40 MW solar project is projected to generate power for 6,500 average homes.

This type of retrofit technology is just the kind of innovation the developed world needs to reduce its carbon footprint, but in developing nations without infrastructure, the question of increased access necessarily comes first.

In his keynote address to the World Energy Forum, Kandeh K. Yumkella, chairman of UN-Energy and director-general of the UN Industrial Development Organization, cited the harm to women's and children's health caused by carcinogens and indoor air pollution from the inefficient heating and cooking appliances that are common in developing countries.

Collecting water and firewood takes hours out of the day for many women and girls in developing countries, explaining in part the significant gender disparity in school attendance. Compounding the problem is a lack of access to refrigeration technology, as foods spoil more quickly. Thus one can see how problems of poverty, hunger, education, gender equality, health, sustainability, and economic empowerment in the developing world all depend upon the proliferation of sustainable energy.

In an effort to address this issue, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves last month at the Clinton Global Initiative forum in New York. The alliance is a $60 million dollar public-private partnership with the target of cleaner, more efficient stoves in 100 million dwellings by 2020.

Traditional stoves and open fires are the primary means of cooking and heating for 3 billion people in developing countries and exposure to smoke causes almost 2 million deaths annually, with women and young children affected most. According to the Alliance mission statement, this equals one life lost every 16 seconds from a preventable health hazard. The Alliance will also support research on regional compatibility: how to get the right options in the right places.

This kind of innovative strategy, one which includes both increased access and emphasis on improved efficiency, exemplifies the kind of change Yumkella called for at the World Energy Forum. In his address he proposed two key goals to be incorporated into the MDGs: (1) universal access to modern energy services, and (2) massive improvement in efficiency by 2030.

Access to energy highlights the deep global divide between the haves and have-nots. While 1.5 billion people, about a quarter of the world's population, have no access to electricity, high-income countries use approximately 10,000 kWh per person per year. In eleven countries, all in Africa, 90 percent of people are without electricity. Furthermore, as Nakicenovic pointed out, due to inefficient technologies in the developing world, people in places such as Sub-Saharan Africa whose access is quite limited "pay twice as much for the same energy" [as people in developed regions pay]. Yumkella's goal of a minimum level is 100 kWh per person per year, which is a minuscule fraction of today's average North American energy consumption.

Ahmad Kamal, president of the Ambassador's Club at the United Nations and former president of the UN Economic and Social Council, remarked at the WEF that despite this disparity a duality exists as well: "energy is a problem and a solution." In its overconsumption, dirty energy has led to alarming levels of global warming pollution, as well as local environmental and health crises.

But in the proliferation of efficient technologies and increased accessibility for developing nations, there exists an opportunity for economic empowerment in otherwise marginalized communities, as well as an infrastructure upon which to achieve the eight current Millennium Development Goals.


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Read More: Development, Energy, Environment, Food, Globalization, Health, Poverty, Sustainability, Technology, United States, Global

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