$48bn a year would provide electricity to the poor, report says

Fiona Harvey

Giving the poor access to electricity would bring huge gains in health, education and economic growth, with little increase in emmissions, according to International Energy Agency study

More than 1 billion people in poor countries around the world could have access to electricity within 20 years, if the international community is prepared to make the effort, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on Monday.

Giving poor people access to electricity – more than a century after it became available to the rich – would cost about $48bn a year, and would have huge advantages in terms of health, education and economic growth, a global study for the IEA concluded. Moreover, it would not require a leap in greenhouse gas emissions, as low-carbon energy could make up a large part of the new energy sources to bring the poor into step with the modern world.

If done properly, providing electricity access to those who lack it would increase carbon dioxide emissions by about 0.7%, according to the IEA report, which it said would be "equivalent to the annual emissions of New York State but giving electricity to a population more than 50 times the size".

"Eradicating energy poverty is a moral imperative, and this report shows that it is achievable. Now it is just a question of mustering the political will," said Maria van der Hoeven, executive director of the IEA. "In too many countries today, children cannot do their homework because they have no light. Food cannot be kept because there is no electricity. In short, modern society cannot function. The United Nations has declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, and this is an excellent opportunity for us to agree on rapid collective action to address this unacceptable problem."

People with access to electricity suffer far less from indoor air pollution, mostly caused by cooking over traditional wood fires. Close to 3 billion people around the world currently have no access to clean cooking facilities, and indoor air pollution is one of the world's biggest "silent killers", causing millions of deaths and many more cases of respiratory illness every year, mostly in women and children, who are more exposed to the pollution.

Education is also improved with electricity access, as children are able to study at home after school, rather than having to rely on kerosene lamps or candles.

Although the $48bn a year is a massive hike from current levels of investment, Van der Hoeven pointed out it would be only about 3% of the worldwide investment needed in the electricity sector, in order to update services and to move to low-carbon electricity provision.

The IEA calculates that of the money needed, $18bn could come from multilateral and bilateral development sources, $15bn from the governments of developing countries and $15bn from the private sector.

Most of the people currently lacking modern energy facilities are in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, the IEA report found.

The IEA study forms part of its annual "world energy outlook" report, its respected and eagerly awaited update on the world's energy scene, encompassing climate change, energy access and forecasts of pressures on the oil price. This year's report will also include information on shale gas, following the IEA's summer publication of a report dismantling some of the claims from the fossil fuel industry that the world is entering a "golden age of gas".