Energy Poverty Across the Globe

Boomer Fleming
December 14, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2017


Fig. 1: A woman in wraparound khanga cooking pilau on an open fire in Morocco. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Energy poverty is a concept referred to as a lack of access to modern energy services. While a universal definition of energy poverty has not yet come to fruition, the United Nations has it as "the absence of sufficient choice in accessing adequate, affordable, reliable, high-quality, safe, and environmentally benign energy services to support economic and human development." [1] While this is a topic that is inexplicably linked to a multitude of other aspects of development and poverty, this report seeks to give an overview of the millions of people across the globe who are affected by the situation and challenges of addressing and resolving the existing dilemma.

Global Access to Energy

As development across the globe has led to bringing energy services to more people, it has failed to keep pace with rising population growth. As of 2016, 1.1 billion people do not have access to electricity, and about 2.8 billion people lack access to clean cooking. Access to electricity has been identified as an essential component to decreasing poverty and has seen increasing progression in recent years. Since 2012, more than 100 million people a year have gained access to electricity. This is an increase from the rate of 62 million people a year gaining access to electricity between 2000 and 2012. [2] Although, this progression has had varying degrees of effectiveness as it attempts to keep up with differing degrees of regional population growth. This is resonated as strikingly only 10 countries (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda) account for 63% of all the people with no access to electricity. [1]

Lack of access to clean cooking refers to relying on biomass such as wood and crop waste to cook. An example of this is seen in Fig. 1. Populations using these methods of cooking are often also relying on such methods to heat their homes. Clean cooking has been a major focus within energy poverty and access talks as 1.3 million people in low income countries die prematurely each year as a result of the indoor pollution from these methods, with women and children being the most affected. [3] Geographies most affected by the lack of access to clean cooking are in developing Asia and sub-Saharan Africa where more than a combined 2.1 billion people are set to rely primarily on the traditional use of biomass for cooking in 2030. [2] Just three countries India, China and Bangladesh account for half of all the people of the world with no access to modern cooking facilities. [4]

In the face of such large challenges to energy access, India currently leads the world with regards to increasing access to electricity where half a billion people have gained access to electricity since 2000. This pace has increased since 2011, with 40 million people gaining access each year. This access has primarily come as a result of government measures that have initiated new connections to the grid. [2] Unfortunately at the expense of this growth, since 2000 only 20% of this access to electricity has come via renewable resources.

Addressing the Challenge

The largest initiative addressing the global challenge of energy poverty came four years before being incorporated into the 2015 Paris Climate Conference. The Sustainable Energy for All initiative (SE4ALL) is a partnership initiated by the UN Secretary-General in 2011. It targets three primary objectives to be achieved by 2030. These are: [5]

  1. Universal access to modern energy services

  2. A twofold increase in the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency

  3. A doubling of the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix

While these objectives seem strong in their attempts to address global energy poverty, action toward them has been lackluster. While countries have increasingly integrated actions that progress toward transforming their energy systems toward sustainability as a part of the SE4All initiative, it has not been enough to put us on track toward achieving the outlined objectives. In attempts to monitor and assess progress toward the Sustainability For All initiative, various international agencies have created reports, including the Energy Access Outlook which is backed by the International Energy Agency. Within the 2017 report it was emphasized that global spending would need to greatly increase in order to achieve objectives. It was estimated that to provide electricity for all by 2030, spending would need to more than double to $52 billion a year. [2] It was also addressed that this investment would need to be specifically targeted at specific geographical regions in order to be effective, specifically pointing out that 95% of the additional spending must be toward development in sub-Saharan Africa. Additionally, the investment would need to be specifically targeted at renewable energy generation in these specific areas. Beyond this, it is recognized that systems need to be set up in a way that would further initiate progress for electricity beyond homes to spur economic growth in areas such as business and agriculture.

Another separate and important challenge of addressing global energy poverty has come with questions of amplifying global greenhouse-gas emissions alongside increasing access to energy. The International Energy Agency states that "Achieving energy for all by 2030 will not cause a net increase in global greenhouse-gas emissions." [2] This is given the targets are achieved through the outlined objectives. Furthermore, it is outlined that achieving energy for all through the outlined initiatives would have an increase of 0.2% on global energy demand. Though the corresponding increase of carbon dioxide emissions of around .2% (70 Mt = 7 × 107 metric tons of CO2) in 2030 would be offset by reducing biomass cooking methods and result in a net reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, saving around 165 Mt (1.65 × 108 metric tons) of carbon-dioxide equivalent from methane and nitrous oxide. [2] While this would be an ideal situation, current evidence regarding developing nations and energy production suggests we are likely to see an increase in energy consumption from developing nations with increasing GDP. Stanchi highlights that their research led them to a relationship between development and energy use, and a conclusion that underdeveloped countries use less energy. [6] Thus, it seems more reasonable to assume that with development of countries, energy use will increase and correspondingly so will greenhouse gas emissions, likely to that of developed countries. The largest challenge remains as to how this energy will be produced and will thus will dictate emissions.


Much of Earth's population still lacks access to modern energy services and this number increases with a rising global population. Recent global initiatives have attempted to address such challenges by creating objectives to lead to sustainable energy access for all. While such objectives are not out of reach, global spending and government action must greatly increase to reach targets set for 2030. Meeting these targets would initiate great progress in development and productivity as well as begin to attack challenges that general global poverty pose, but to meet current goals set by the Sustainable Energy for All initiative there needs to be an increase in the time, capital, and effort spent trying to achieve them.

© Boomer Fleming. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "World Energy Assessment," United Nations, 2000

[2] "Energy Access Outlook 2017," International Energy Agency, 2017.

[3] M. Gonzlez-Eguino, "Energy Poverty: An Overview," Renew. Sust. Energy Rev. 47, 377 (2015).

[4] M. Lavelle, "Five Surprising Facts About Energy Poverty," National Geographic, 30 May 13.

[5] "Sustainable Energy For All - Tracking Progress in Asia and the Pacific: A Summary Report," Asian Development Bank, 2015.

[6] M. Stanchi, "Developing-Nation Energy," Physics 240, Stanford University, Fall 2016.