Today, more than 1 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity. An estimated 2.8 billion people lack clean cooking options. Closing these gaps will not only support development in some of the poorest regions of the world but also reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report by the International Energy Agency.

Access to energy is an essential tool in supporting human and economic development. Societies without it are generally sicker and poorer while those with strong energy systems are richer and healthier.

This is why we find energy at the heart of many of the United Nations’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including those aimed at achieving gender equality, reducing poverty, improving health and reducing the negative impacts of global climate change. It is also the explicit goal of SDG 7, with its aim to “ensure access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all”.

Significant progress has been made in electrification since the turn of the century, says the IEA in their new “Energy Access Outlook 2017” report. The number of people without access to electricity fell to 1.1 billion in 2016 from 1.7 billion in 2000. More than 100 million people have gained electricity access every year since 2012, a 50% increase from the 65 million per year from 2000-2011.

In Asia, almost 9 out of 10 people now have electricity access and China gained “full electrification” in 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, electrification efforts outpaced population growth for the first time ever in 2014.

But more than half (57%) of people in sub-Saharan Africa still do not have access to electricity and the world is still on track to leave 674 million people in the dark in 2030, falling short of global development goals.

Credit: International Energy Agency

Earlier this month, I had a chance to speak with Hannah Daly and Molly A. Walton, two energy analysts at the International Energy Agency who were co-leads and principal authors to the IEA’s new report. The two are a dynamic and complementary pair – combining technical, policy, and communication skillsets to develop a report that provides both insight into the additional efforts needed to close the gap and attain energy for all and a strategy for how to get there.

During our discussion, Daly and Walton were quick to note that, while they led the core work on this project, which was directed by Laura Cozzi (the head of the Energy Demand Division within the World Energy Outlook team), their efforts were deeply collaborative.  People across the International Energy Agency played key roles in this project, especially Gee Yong Law, their IEA colleague who is an energy professional from Singapore. As did the hundreds of people around the world who contributed directly to their data collection and analysis efforts.

Below is an edited transcript of my conversation with Daly and Walton about their new report.


MCL: Thank you both for speaking with me today. To start, could you tell me a bit about this project and how you pulled together the data that you used in your analysis?

HD: This report is a truly global, comprehensive evaluation of both where we are today with energy access and where we are going.

For the first question - where are we? - we undertook a big effort to collect data, in particular in developing countries where numbers are hard to put together. We literally called-up and emailed government contacts to see what data they had. Then, to fill in the gaps, we relied on surveys from development banks and other international organizations. We collected data for both electricity access and clean cooking - for cooking, one of the most important sources of data was the World Health Organization. These data are available online in the IEA Energy Access Database.

For the second question - where are we going? - for the first time this year, we did a country-by-country analysis of where countries are heading in terms of universal access. We look at recent progress, policies in place, and investments to understand at where a continuation of these trends would take us in 2030. This has shown us that we are not on track as almost 700 million people remain without electricity and around 2.3 billion people without clean cooking access by 2030. A lot of the challenge lies in sub-Saharan Africa. Asia is on track to universal electrification, though clean cooking is still lagging.


MW: These results are symptomatic of the broader development challenges that we see around the world. For energy, access to electricity has had a lot of attention paid to it. But access to clean cooking just hasn’t been as “sexy” a topic and so hasn’t been elevated on the policy agenda. And the cost of moving people away from more traditional cooking methods are much smaller than electrification while the benefits are huge, in particular for women and children.

Today, almost 3 million people die each year because of indoor air pollution, mainly from inefficient stoves and a reliance on solid biomass, coal and kerosene for cooking. In order to eliminate these deaths, we need to make access to clean cooking a policy priority and really work on understanding the culture behind cooking and how to best shift people to cleaner cooking facilities like liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) [bottled gas], electricity etc. We also need to get women, who do a lot of the cooking, involved in the process. These are other key reasons in why we undertook this study, to highlight the drastic impact that a lack of access has and why it is so important to provide access to the billions currently without.

Credit: International Energy Agency


MCL: You mention LPG - a fossil fuel - did you check and see if universal access to energy will work against progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions around the globe to mitigate the impacts of climate change?

HD: We get this question all the time, which makes sense. On the surface, it seems like more people using electricity and fossil fuels would mean more greenhouse gas emissions.

But, we found that the lowest-cost — the cheapest — pathway to achieving energy access for all has zero impact on our ability to mitigate climate change. In fact, universal energy access looks like a net benefit for the climate, which we were really happy to discover.


"We found that the lowest-cost — the cheapest — pathway to achieving energy access for all has zero impact on our ability to mitigate climate change." ~Hannah Daly, energy analyst


MW: I would also mention that our entire analysis process was technology- and fuel-neutral. It’s going to take a lot of different fuels to get this done. We need all of these options - including fossil fuels - to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal of universal energy access but our analysis shows that increasingly what is most cost-effective are renewables. This is true for both the grid and mini-grid and off-grid systems, with the latter two being used especially in rural areas --- where the electricity grid has yet to arrive or where it would be too expensive for it to get to.

Credit: International Energy Agency

MCL: Can you explain to me how the math works on this? How it is that you can have more people with access to energy but not increase global greenhouse gas emissions?

HD: This result can be explained in three steps.

First, while it is true that more than two-thirds of the people who gained electricity access since 2000 did so using fossil fuels, the development pathway of the future is different. The declining costs of solar and batteries, as well as the widespread use of mobile phones, has enabled new business models that pair the two and make them more affordable for consumers. In the past, we would have needed oil or fossil fuels. In the future, as Molly noted, we see that renewables are the lowest-cost option in many cases, especially for many people living in rural areas who can get access off the grid, which reduces the climate impact of providing electricity for all.

The second thing to understand is a surprising one - and one of the least well communicated - is related to biomass like wood and charcoal.

People assume that burning biomass in inefficient cookstoves is climate neutral. But, that’s not the case. In fact, burning biomass in inefficient cookstoves is a major source of methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas.

Which brings us to the third step - doing the calculations to see which is more significant, the potential increase in carbon dioxide emissions from more fossil fuels for delivering universal access or the reductions in methane emissions from burning less wood and charcoal. When we did these calculations, we found that cooking with LPG and some additional fossil fuels for electricity access adds around 0.2% to global carbon dioxide emissions. But, these emissions would be more than offset by the large amount of methane emissions that clean cookstoves would eliminate. The amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted from cooking with biomass is uncertain, but we used a conservative emission factor and came to this conclusion.  And this doesn’t even factor in the sustainability and safety questions associated with the collection of wood and charcoal.

This leads to the conclusion that universal energy access supports climate change mitigation efforts. Climate advocates should also be clean cooking advocates.


Q: You mentioned the role of women earlier — could you tell me a bit more about what your analysis found in terms of the role of women in achieving energy access for all?

MW: Women really are at the heart of achieving energy for all and in many cases are best positioned to champion energy access solutions. They can serve as ambassadors for these access programmes, educating their peers on how to use new technologies or fuels as well as the harm caused by continuing to cook with solid biomass of coal. Too often, energy access policies don’t empower women to become more involved in the development of policies and the delivery of services, and so often the products and programmes designed don’t work for their intended users.

Achieving universal energy access also has massive benefits for women. On average, women spend 1.4 hours collecting fuel and it’s often quite heavy to carry. Women also spend 4-5 hours per day cooking over a smoky traditional cookstove.

By providing access to clean cooking and reducing the amount of time spent gathering fuelwood you’d save around 2 months of work per woman if you could achieve universal energy access. That’s the equivalent of adding 80 million people to the workforce --- a huge opportunity for growth in productivity. This would also have a massive health impact. The 2.8 million premature deaths that we see due to indoor air pollution predominately impacts women and children.

Providing electricity is also critical for achieving gender equality as it, for example, improves economic and education opportunities and increases the safety of communities at night.

Credit: International Energy Agency

Thanks again to Hannah Daly and Molly A. Walton for taking the time to speak about the IEA’s new report on energy access.

For those interesting in reading more, the report can be accessed for free from this website. An executive summary is also available here.