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Lack of investment in clean energy risks leaving world's poorest behind

Anne Gulland
A worker at a solar plant in Senegal - one of the biggest in Africa - Bloomberg

People in some of the world’s poorest countries are at risk of being left even further behind because of a lack of investment in renewable energy and clean sources of cooking, a report warns.

A report by the organisations Sustainable Energy for All and the Climate Policy Initiative, has mapped investment into electricity and clean cooking sources in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia and has found that investment is severely lagging behind. 

Access to electricity is vital for a country’s economic development, enabling people to heat and light their homes as well as ensuring essential services such as health care and water function properly. 

It is also a key United Nations sustainable development goal but latest data shows that around 840 million people globally still do not have access to electricity.

And a further three billion people are reliant on dirty sources of cooking, using wood, charcoal and even animal dung as fuel.

The World Health Organization estimates that around four million people – many of them women and children – die every year from indoor air pollution caused by dirty energy.

The report finds that $36 billion has been invested in clean energy such as solar power – far short of the $51 billion needed.

And for clean cooking the story is even “bleaker”, the report says. Only $32m has been invested, less than one per cent of the $4.5bn needed to provide clean cookers to everyone in need. 

The report warns that this lack of progress is now an “environmental and public health issue”.

Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly lagging behind, the report warns, with 573m people without access to electricity. In 10 of the 13 countries studied investment actually fell in 2018, compared with 2017.

Dr Barbara Buchner, one of the report’s authors, said that population growth in Africa was a particular problem. 

“Sub-Saharan Africa is getting left behind and we are seeing that the divide in access to electricity and clean cooking finance is putting economic development on hold.

“As the population increases, this is outstripping levels of new access. We have seen some increase in allocations of new finance but population increases will cancel this out,” she said. 

The report calls for off-grid solutions such as solar panels and mini-grids for those in rural and remote communities who were never likely to be connected to the main grid. However, only 1.2 per cent of finance went into this: an “abysmally” low amount, the report said. 

The report found that investment in coal-powered plants decreased from $8.1bn in 2015-16 to $6bn in 2017-18 but there was still not enough investment in renewable energy.

China and India have both cut their investment in domestic fossil fuels but have continued to invest in overseas coal plants in Africa, Bangladesh and the Philippines. 

The report urges policy makers, particularly in Africa, to invest in clean energy.

 “It does not make any economic sense to build a fossil fuel economy because it’s much cheaper to build renewable energy plants,” said Dr Buchner. 

And she said that donors and public finance institutions should come together to invest in electricity and clean cooking.

Dr Buchner said: “If there was some kind of general fund for donors and public finance institutions to pool their resources and allow them to scale up their efforts that would be helpful.”

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