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close this bookEnergy as it relates to Poverty Alleviation and Environmental Protection (UNDP, 1998, 36 p.)
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View the documentPoverty and Environment Initiative Publications
View the documentPreface
View the documentIntroduction
Open this folder and view contentsKey Energy Issues as They Relate to Poverty and Environment
View the documentDesigning Sustainable Energy1 Policies for Poverty Alleviation and Environmental Protection
Open this folder and view contentsRemaining Challenges
Open this folder and view contentsExamples of Sustainable Energy Strategies that Simultaneously Address Poverty and Environment Concerns
View the documentConclusions
View the documentReferences


For people living in poverty, the most pressing priority is the satisfaction of basic human needs, which includes access to food, shelter, water supply and sanitation and other services that will improve their standard of living, such as health care, education, and better transport. Problems of poverty in all its dimensions can be addressed with the improved provision of energy services. It is significant that most of those without access to modern energy services live in developing countries and belong to the segment of the human population that lives in poverty. While reliable and adequate energy supplies do not guarantee economic growth and employment generation, their absence typically limits growth. Although low energy consumption is not a cause of poverty, the lack of available energy services correlates closely with many poverty indicators. Moreover, the prospects for income generating activities that can help break the cycle of poverty often rely on the availability of energy. Nearly 2 billion people, constituting about a third of humanity, continue to rely on biomass fuels and traditional technologies for cooking and heating. About 1.5-to-2 billion people have no access to electricity.

The link between poverty and energy should not, however, be construed simply in terms of inability of the poor to afford better energy services. Energy services constitute a sizeable share of total household expenditure in developing countries. People living in poverty often pay a higher price per unit of energy services than do the rich. They also spend more time obtaining these energy services and rely on resource-scarce and polluting ways of converting energy for services like cooking, drinking water, heating and lighting, all of which have associated health impacts. Often, it is the absence of institutional arrangements to widen the access to modern energy services that characterises the condition of people living in poverty.

The production and use of energy have environmental consequences at local, regional and global levels. These impacts extend throughout the fuel cycle of an Energy Chain (see figure 1), that is, the entire chain of activities from resource through to end-use. They could also manifest themselves over short, medium or long time-scales, or have cascading effects by combining with other environmental problems. Energy services are the desired and useful products, processes, or services that result from the use of energy, for instance, illumination, comfortable indoor climate, refrigerated storage, transportation, appropriate temperatures for cooking, materials, etc. The energy chain to deliver these services begins with the collection or extraction of primary energy, which is then converted into energy carriers suitable for the end-use(s). These energy carriers are used in energy end-use technologies to provide the desired energy services (see figure 1). Thus far, most discussions of the energy sector have focussed on supply-side issues. However, the energy system involves much more than what is conventionally considered the energy sector and unless the scope of discussions about energy is extended, energy efficiency will receive less attention than it deserves.

The Human Development Index (HDI) developed by UNDP is a composite measure of development based on indicators of longevity, knowledge and standard of living. The relationship between HDI and per capita commercial energy consumption demonstrates that there is a steep increase in HDI as per capita energy consumption increases in countries whose per capita energy consumption is very low, as it is in the vast majority of developing countries. Therefore, modest increases in per capita energy consumption for the poorest countries can lead to tremendous improvements the quality of life of people living in these countries.

Policies and programmes that create opportunities for people living in poverty to improve their energy services, by making more efficient use of commercial and non-commercial energy and by shifting to higher quality energy carriers, will allow them to improve their standard of living. The substitution of modern energy carriers and more efficient energy conversion devices would confer sizeable gains in purchasing power on poor households. Improvements in energy efficiency have considerable potential to reduce poverty in all of its major dimensions and to facilitate development.

Figure 1 Energy Chain

Source: IPCC (1996).

Energy interventions can help in the challenges of poverty alleviation and environmental protection. The conventional belief has been that poverty and environment are linked in a "downward spiral" in which people living in poverty, forced to overuse environmental resources for their daily survival, are further impoverished by the degradation of these resources. Increasingly, however, it has become evident that people living in poverty are capable of creating arrangements that protect the environment while sustaining their livelihoods, to the extent that they are provided access to superior technology and finance. Thus, improved energy services will increase their satisfaction of basic needs, and in the process, reduce their adverse impacts on the environment. Nevertheless, realising this dual potential requires institutional as much as technological innovation. Primarily, the level of energy services, rather than energy consumption, needs to be taken as the indicator of development.

Energy is directly related to the most pressing social, environmental, economic and security issues which affect sustainable development. These include: poverty, jobs and income levels, access to social services, the situation of women, population growth, agricultural production and food scarcity, health, land degradation, climate change and environmental quality, and economic and security issues. These linkages and the past development patterns of the world have produced an unsustainable situation, as discussed in the recent UNDP publication, Energy after Rio: Prospects and Challenges (UNDP, 1997). Energy challenges should be tackled in ways such that these social, environmental, economic and security problems are ameliorated-not aggravated - as is typically the case with conventional energy strategies, which either ignore these global problems or do not deal with them adequately. Energy strategies, policies, programmes and projects should be consistent with, and contribute to, the solutions of the major global problems. The global goal for energy should be to make energy an instrument to help realize the broader goal of sustainable development. This paper examines the poverty-energy-environment nexus in light of the key elements of the debate, current experiences and policies to increase the use of sustainable energy technologies and to reduce the impact of poverty on resource degradation.