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The Solvable Problem of Energy Poverty

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The United Nations’ goals for fighting extreme poverty—an effort being assessed at a summit this week in New York—will fall short unless nations also work to bring electricity and modern, safe cooking technology to the billions of “energy-poor” people around the globe, a new report says.

The worsening problem of energy poverty, however, can be solved without breaking the banks of nations—and without a significant worsening of the climate change problem, said the study released Tuesday by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and two UN bodies, the Development Programme (UNDP) and the Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

Providing modern energy to the very poor—the population that the United Nations seeks to reach in its Millennium Development Goals program—would require an annual investment of about $41 billion per year over the next five years, or just 0.06 percent of global GDP, said the report.

Tackling the larger goal of universal energy access— reaching all 1.4 billion people who lack access to electricity and the 3 billion relying on unventilated and inefficient wood, charcoal, and dung cooking stoves—would require only a modest increase in carbon dioxide emissions, the report calculated. That’s because the amount of fuel needed to address basic needs is small, and the opportunities for using cleaner energy are great. If the world takes the problem on, by 2030, global electricity generation would be just 2.9 percent higher, oil demand would rise less than 1 percent and carbon emissions would be just 0.8 percent higher than the world’s current trajectory.

“This is what is most compelling—the evidence that there is no reason why we should not make this commitment,” said Kamal Rijal, the UNDP’s policy adviser on sustainable energy and co-author of the report. “The money is not a problem and in terms of climate it is also not as big as people think. And from a health standpoint, it would save so many lives.”

Read more on National Geographic’s site