3 ways cities can solve the ‘humanitarian crisis’ of energy access while growing their economy

A student studies by candlelight in 2012 in Sabah, Malaysia, which experiences frequent electricity blackouts. (Lano Lan/Shutterstock)

Students studying by candlelight, home-based entrepreneurs working through the night by the glow of cell phones clenched in their teeth, women dying of respiratory problems brought on by cooking meals for their families. These are some of the individual impacts of unreliable and unaffordable energy — what some warn constitutes a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

The implications of these problems go well beyond individuals and even families, too, to directly impact on the overall well-being of cities — their finances, environment, productivity, competitiveness, quality of life and more. Thus, cities have a major role to play in pushing back on these trends, according to new report released Thursday, which also suggests that new opportunities to do so are on the horizon.

Those opportunities include key ways in which cities can simultaneously address concerns around energy access and bolster their own economies, numerous examples of which are outlined in “Powering Cities in the Global South”, from the WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities, a Washington think tank.

“One of our most significant findings was that city governments need to get more involved in increasing energy access while keeping down carbon emissions — these are not just issues for national government,” David Satterthwaite, a co-author and senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London, told Citiscope. “Reliable electricity and cleaner fuels will bring major health and other benefits to low-income groups if they are affordable.”

Such issues among the “urban under-served” remain an underappreciated issue across the globe, warns the report. But it is one that extends its reach into almost every aspect of a city’s well-being.

[See: The keys to meeting Africa’s growing urban energy needs]

Large majorities of workers in developing countries across the globe work in the informal sector, for instance, and most of them operate either from businesses in their homes or within public space. Unreliable or unaffordable electricity can devastate such small-scale initiatives, making already thin profit margins impossible.

Likewise, the health and economic impacts of air pollution have only fairly recently started to be tabulated. That includes for the tens of millions of households that continue to cook over solid fuels such as wood, often indoors. This issue alone results in a half-million deaths a year, according to the report authors, inordinately impacting on women and children.

“It’s sometimes difficult for those who haven’t experienced energy poverty to imagine quite how difficult life is for the … 40 percent of the African urban population that doesn’t have reliable access to electricity,” said Anton Cartwright, with the African Center for Cities at the University of Cape Town, in a call with reporters. “It’s a humanitarian crisis.”

“Lack of electricity limits economic and livelihood opportunities,” he continued. “But regular and reliable supply is also crucial for other development priorities such as sanitation, water supply, business development and more.”

[See: At ‘renewable cities’ forum, envisioning a city that produces more energy than it uses]

Energy is a “quintessential public good”, Cartwright said. And as such, its supply is deeply political — and any attempt to address the current energy deficit will need to address that political aspect, as well.

City role

Across the developing world, about 130 million people in cities continue to lack access to electricity, according to the new report. For decades dealing with that problem has been considered a responsibility of national governments, given that they are the ones typically vested with the capital and authority to build electricity generation and transmission capacity in the first place.

“There is a common perception that cities don’t have a large role to play in energy, because only a minority of cities globally have direct control over their electricity supply.”

Michael Westphal
Senior Associate, WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities

But according to the report authors, there is a rising recognition that cities themselves hold important tools with which to roll back this trend — and, increasingly, there’s an economic and even political incentive to do so. They focus on three areas where city officials can focus their attention:

  • Shifting to cleaner cooking fuels
  • Installing more “distributed” renewable energy sources, particularly solar panels, and
  • Introducing energy-efficiency building codes — and enforcing those mandates.

[See: What Melbourne learned cutting emissions from ‘1200 Buildings’]

So within those areas, where can local officials start?

“There is a common perception that cities don’t have a large role to play in energy, because only a minority of cities globally have direct control over their electricity supply,” said Michael Westphal, the report’s lead author and a senior associate at the Ross Center. In fact, he says, there’s a lot they can do.

“They can lead by example in terms of coming up with their own renewable energy targets, they can enforce building regulations, they can make land available for renewable energy projects,” he told Citiscope. “They can work with civil society organizations to make sure things like appliance standards really have the buy-in of the community.”

Action in each of these areas is becoming easier, he said. That’s in great part because of rising political recognition of the importance of focus on these issues coupled with numerous leaps forward around how to make that action more affordable.

[See: City strategies to make buildings more energy efficient]

One important example is “net metering”, referring to agreements under which people generating their own energy — from solar panels, for example — can sell unused electricity back to power companies. The income can facilitate the purchase of the panels in the first place. While this is an approach typically associated with rich countries, many cities in the Global South are now unveiling similar initiatives, said Westphal, including Bangalore, Cape Town and others. Delhi has a programme under which people can rent out space on their roofs to solar developers.

He also points to a proliferation of new kinds of loans targeted at consumers. These include arrangements under which a household or business can rent a solar panel and pay it off incrementally through payroll deductions. That approach is particularly prevalent in African cities, Westphal notes, where it’s helping to double the number of households connected to solar production each year.

[See: Kampala aims to lead African cities in fight against climate change]

In the meantime, the cost of solar panels is dropping precipitously — by a third over the past year alone.

A woman cooks in the Indian village of Rusirani in 2015. Indoor cooking with solid fuels kills some half-million people a year. (Khalilah Mohd Nor/Shutterstock)

Other areas are seeing greater innovation from the national level. For instance, the report highlights how 100 percent of Brazil’s city dwellers and 90 percent of those in Indonesia now have access to liquid petroleum gas, a healthier alternative to solid cooking fuels.

Ghana and Mexico, meanwhile, are key examples of national governments that have taken energy efficiency seriously. Ghana, for instance, has undertaken significant efforts to regulate the appliances such as refrigerators and air conditions, notable also in how the initiative is using community input to figure out what is possible. Mexico, meanwhile, is implementing building codes that promote energy efficiency, as is China, India, Indonesia and Brazil. The result? Billions of dollars in savings for consumers, in addition to broader sustainability achievements.

Right conditions

These trends are being buttressed by a broader shift in the international focus back toward cities. For decades, international development organizations saw energy solely through the lens of rural communities, but Westphal says that has begun to change — driven by better data about problems and solutions, new approaches and priorities on the part of the global development institutions, and the new innovations in how to bring down the costs of interventions.

“It’s sometimes difficult for those who haven’t experienced energy poverty to imagine quite how difficult life is for the … urban population that doesn’t have reliable access to electricity. It’s a humanitarian crisis.”

Anton Cartwright
African Center for Cities

[See: Lessons from India in building urban resilience]

A decade ago, for instance, there was very little understanding of the health impacts of dirty cooking methods, or of the broader financial implications for the health and productivity of a city’s residents. Likewise, far more is known today about the importance of electricity reliability for the legions of home-based and informal workers that power many local economies.

And local communities are becoming increasingly mobilized around these issues, too: Air pollution, for instance, has begun to drive local politics in countries such as China, India and beyond, resulting in greater political commitment to address these concerns.  

Meanwhile, the international community has largely rewritten the global development architecture over the past three years. That has resulted in a suite of agreements — including the Sustainable Development Goals, the New Urban Agenda and the Paris climate agreement — that has carved out a landmark new focus on and role for cities, including around energy.

[See: A new way to verify the real impacts of climate action in cities]

Together, these accords have “elevated some of these urban problems to the core by the international community,” Westphal says. But they also are increasingly creating the conditions for more robust action by cities.

“These aren’t just recommendations,” he said of the report’s findings. “We do see a lot of action by cities in the Global South, and cities really can lead by example. It’s really time for cities to take a hands-on approach to ensuring energy access for their citizens.”

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Carey is news editor for Citiscope.  Full bio

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