In 2015, the member states of the United Nations issued a bold challenge to the world – to achieve sustainable development by 2030 through 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs).
One of the core themes of the goals is the eradication of poverty worldwide and central to achieving this aim is ensuring inclusive economic growth at all levels. Inclusive growth being the long term, sustained economic growth that focuses on reducing poverty levels through increasing the productive employment of people rather than redistributing income from the wealthy to the poor.
Coming from an environmental background, I would argue that through focusing on SDG 7, ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all, we can facilitate inclusive growth and build the foundation for achieving all other SDGs. Energy is at the heart of sustainable development outcomes and I would like to explore this idea using the example of several of the SDGs in the context of inclusive growth for Africa.
Africa’s poorest people experience what is known as energy poverty, a lack of access to energy and findings of the World Bank have shown that people living in extreme poverty cannot pull themselves out of poverty (SDG 1) without access to reliable energy. Beyond the physical and infrastructural barriers in access to energy on our continent, there are financial barriers where energy is unaffordable or where the cost of energy diverts a large portion of household income away from other basic needs. Through creating access to energy, especially electricity, there are a multitude of opportunities that will be presented to the Africans who once suffered from energy poverty.
One such example where energy access may create opportunities is for women (SDG 5) living in rural poverty. Women in Africa spend hours each day collecting and utilising biomass for cooking and they therefore bare the time burden created by a lack of energy, where time is diverted from other productive activities such as learning (SDG 4) or cultivating land, to collecting fire wood for cooking - On the topic of learning, energy provision would also create an improved study environment in homes, allowing children to complete their homework as well as decrease the need for children to leave school early to help collect firewood - For growth to be inclusive, new employment opportunities need to be created and productivity needs to be increased. Through providing energy access to these rural communities, women would have the freedom and opportunity to become more productive and potentially contribute to rural economic growth.
Improved energy access would allow for improved agricultural outputs which can potentially lead to improved food security (SDG 2). The intensification of farming that will be required to feed Africa’s growing population will require energy at every stage of the agricultural process from production, harvesting, processing, storage and transportation. In the case of rural households in particular, growth stage theory suggests that the ability to produce agricultural surplus through improved farming allows for certain family members to engage in off farm activities, such as education, labour or entrepreneurship which in turn leads to a boost in rural economies (SDG 8). Through energising the rural food production chain, you create the potential for agricultural surplus and therefore potential for rural economic growth as well as improved food security.
Beyond food security, one of the leading causes of death of women and children after Malaria and HIV/AIDS is of diseases related to the inhalation of smoke from cooking over open fires and from kerosene lamps used to light homes. Through energising rural communities, we will see opportunities to improve the health and wellbeing of underserved rural populations (SDG 3).
Another key aspect of community health is water (SDG 6) and access to energy can allow for improved and more efficient treatment of drinking water. Moreover, at a macro level, 2 billion people live in water scarce countries and the fossil fuel industry has one of the largest water footprints in the world, using freshwater resources and leaving them degraded and unfit for human consumption. Not only does it have one of the highest water footprints, the extractive and production activities also have one of the largest environmental footprints (SDG 15) and are responsible for the degradation and destruction of both aquatic and terrestrial eco-systems at a large scale.
Improved energy efficiency as well as adding modern renewable energy technologies into the energy mix can drastically reduce the amount of water used in the fossil fuel industry as well as preserve untouched eco-systems from the ever-expanding extractive activities of this industry. Linking in with these environmental concerns is that of climate change, said to be the biggest threat to humanity.
People living in poverty are at the greatest risk of the impacts of climate change. If we do not act now, all our efforts towards inclusive growth (with a distinct pro-poor focus) - and towards achieving the other SDGs for that matter - will be in vain. Not only is renewable energy one crucial step in mitigating climate change, it may also provide the foundation for large scale economic growth, without the negative effects on our climate and environment.
My last example looks to implementation; energy provision can provide us with key lessons and examples of partnerships for the goals (SDG 17). Between residents and businesses at a community level to public, private partnerships to international, cross country partnerships such as the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative(AREI). AREI is an African owned and African led partnership between all the members of the African Union adopted at COP21 with the aim of energising Africa in a sustainable way and it will be one crucial part of our journey towards achieving the SDGs
The best bet that Africa has to meet the challenge set out for us by the United Nations as well as to achieve inclusive growth? Energy - the foundation for the social, economic and environmental pillars of sustainable development and inclusive growth.