By Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK, New York, November 24, 2009 (ENS) – Energy poverty is an issue that must be addressed at the upcoming climate change summit in Copenhagen say top United Nations experts on public health and development.

“Almost half of humanity is completely disconnected from the debate on how to drive human progress with less emissions and greener energy because their reality is much more basic than that,” said Olav Kjorven. As director of the United Nations Development Programme’s Bureau for Development Policy, Kjorven is tasked with carrying out the UN’s development priorities.

Olav Kjorven of the UN Development Programme (Photo by Eskinder Debebe courtesy UN)

“They carry heavy loads of food and water on their backs because they don’t have transport. They cook with wood fires that damage their health,” Kjorven told reporters at the launch of a new UN study, entitled, “The Energy Access Situation in Developing Countries.”

The study, jointly carried out by the UN Development Programme and the World Health Organization, points out that currently over one billion people in world have no access to electricity and that 80 percent of them live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Slashing global poverty in half by 2015 – the first of eight internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals – is unlikely to be achieved if hundreds of millions of people across the world continue to live without electricity and modern fuels, according to the new report.

Besides poverty alleviation, the Millennium Development Goals include universal primary education, reduction of child mortality, cutbacks in maternal mortality, the promotion of gender equality, and reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Environmental sustainability is one of the eight goals. This goal includes integrating sustainable development into country policies and programs, reversing the loss of natural resources and biological diversity, halving the number of people without safe drinking water and basic sanitation, and improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers.

Ecuadorian men with loads of firewood (Photo by W. Herta)

The Millennium Development Goals were set by world leaders at a major summit held in New York in 2000 at the turn of the Millennium.

UNDP’s Kjorven and WHO officials hold that expanding energy access is essential to tackle global poverty and spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other deadly diseases.

“It needs to happen at the lowest cost and in the cleanest and most sustainable way possible to help developing countries establish a low-carbon route to development,” Kjorven said.

In their report, authors Maria Neira and Veerle Vandweerd note that, while there are no Millennium Development Goals on energy, “The global aspirations embodied in the goals will not become a reality without massive increases in the quantity and quality of energy purposes.”

“This is needed to meet basic needs of poor men and women, especially heat for cooking, and mechanical power,” they wrote in the report’s foreword, stressing that improved energy technologies can prevent unnecessary deaths.

Every year nearly two million people in poor countries die due to indoor air pollution from solid fuel use. The authors say that in poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, half of all deaths from pneumonia and lung diseases occur due to the use of solid fuel.

Fatih Birol of the International Energy Agency (Photo by Eskinder Debebe courtesy UN)

Fatih Birol, chief economist of the International Energy Agency, has endorsed the UNDP-WHO call for action to alleviate energy poverty at the climate change summit.

“The time has come to make hard choices needed to combat climate change and enhance energy security,” said Birol. “At the same time, we should not forget 1.5 billion people who have no access to electricity in the developing world.”

A separate study released by Birol’s agency, which acts as policy advisor to the industrialized democracies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, suggests that the issue of energy access cannot be separated from global efforts to fight climate change.

The study, entitled “Global Energy Outlook 2009,” concludes that containing climate change is possible but will require “a profound transformation” of the global energy system.

“I hope to see a strong signal sent from Copenhagen to the energy sector to kick off this transformation,” Birol told reporters.

The Copenhagen meeting, which is due to start December 7, is expected to set the terms of an agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions that will take effect when the Kyoto Protocol’s current commitment period expires at the end of 2012.

A new climate agreement is considered to be crucial in averting the worst consequences of climate change – extreme weather events, melting glaciers and polar ice, sea level rise, droughts, heat waves and species extinctions.

The Copenhagen summit is the annual Conference of the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, which entered into force in 1994. Most countries in the world are Parties to this treaty.

Recently, a number of nations approved an addition to the treaty, the Kyoto Protocol, which has more powerful and legally binding measures. Under this agreement, 36 developed nations are legally bound to cut carbon emissions to an average of 5.2 percent during the period 2008-2012.

At the UN news conference, Dr. Birol expressed his frustration with the fact that the issue of energy poverty is not on the agenda of the Copenhagen conference on climate change. When asked who opposes discussions on this subject, he told ENS, “There are vested interests on all sides.”

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2009. All rights reserved.