Equality denied to the energy poorby Farooque Chowdhury
The global energy reality exposes an aspect of the energy crisis: equality denied. Billions in this planet is the embodiment of this denial, one of the manifestations of the energy crisis along class line.
“Around 2.64 billion people, 40% of the world’s population,” writes Alejandro Litovsky, “lack modern fuels for cooking and heating. 1.6 billion have no access to electricity, three-quarters of them living in rural areas” (OpenDemocracy, Sept.7, 2007). He continues: “As decision-makers in Europe and north America wonder how to reduce energy consumption, massive regions of the developing world remain literally in the dark. Populations in the energy-poverty trap – covering vast areas of south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa – are nowhere likely to influence the accountability of the energy policies of their governments.”
With the intensification of urbanization the problem is likely to increase. Current projections show that the majority of the people in the underdeveloped world will be living in urban and suburban areas by 2020. A number of the cities in the underdeveloped countries will emerge as the largest cities in the world in terms of population. The urban life already is overwhelmed by low-income population and with the problems pressing them down to dust. This low-income population has least money to access energy as they have to live within a precarious life, which is full with hunger, unemployment, disease, illiteracy. The places they live in don’t support human existence. Lack of safe water and sanitation, insecurity, daily harassment by tools of rule and indignity are integral part of their life. In this life, there is no scope to access better energy source.
“Worldwide, hundreds of millions of low-income households,” a World Bank publication informs, lack access to modern energy (electricity and petroleum products),”
[B]ut estimating the figure even within a few hundred million people is difficult. A common (though perhaps outdated) estimate is about 2 billion people, a third of the world’s population. Households in many African countries consume little commercial energy compared with households in the countries of the former Soviet Union, for example, where the electricity infrastructure built in Soviet times still connects almost 100 percent of the population. Low-income households consume a relatively small amount of energy, and that energy is of low quality. Per capita energy consumption in South Asia is only 2.6 percent — and that in Sub-Saharan Africa only 1.3 percent — of per capita consumption in the United States. For these supplies, survey and anecdotal evidence suggests, South Asians and Sub-Saharan Africans pay among the world’s highest unit costs — and get some of the world’s worst-quality energy. Ugandans spend an estimated US $100 million a year — an incredible 1.5 percent of GDP — on dry cell batteries to power radios, flashlights, and other small items. The average Ugandan household spends an estimated US $72 a year on dry cell batteries, used in 94 percent of Ugandan households. The cost per unit of energy consumed works out to US $400 a kilowatt-hour. Ugandans may spend almost as much per year on kerosene for their lamps. Car batteries, which cost about US $120 a year to operate, produce better-quality power at about US $3 a kilowatt-hour. But poor households often spend a higher share of their income, as in Bulgaria, Jamaica, Kazakhstan, Nepal, Pakistan, Panama, and South Africa. More households use electricity than have in-house water taps or telephones in countries in Europe and Central Asia and in [some] other countries…. Poor countries consume on a per capita basis, only five percent of the modern energy consumed by rich countries. Four out of five people without access to electricity live in rural areas. They include particularly the rural women and children that depend totally on traditional fuels. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia present the largest gaps in access to energy services: Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest electrification rate, with 77% of the population lacking access, or about 526 million people. In South Asia the equivalent figures are 59% and about 800 million people. (Rural Energy and Development: Improving Energy Supplies for Two Billion People, 1996)
More than 95 percent of rural households in Angola, Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Congo (Kinshasa), Ethiopia, Ghana, Sudan, and Zambia among others still use fuel wood and charcoal for cooking. Many areas of China, India, and Bangladesh also rely heavily on fuel wood, wood waste, and charcoal for cooking. In China, about 55 percent of the rural population uses biomass for cooking, as does 87 percent of the rural population in India. There are more facts provided by the mainstream that tell the deprivation of the poor in the area of energy. The Energy and Poverty Reduction – Fact Sheet by the World Bank adds the following:
1.6 billion people lack access to network electricity.… 1.4 billion people will still lack electricity access in 2030.…2.4 billion people rely on traditional biomass … for cooking and heating. This will increase to 2.6 billion by 2030 without change in policies. Poor people in developing countries spend up to a quarter of their cash income on energy. As of 2004, the richest 20% of the world’s population consume 58% of total energy, whereas the poorest 20% consume less than 4%. The … poorest people use only 0.2 tons of oil-equivalent energy per capita annually, while… those earning on average over US $20,000 a year — use nearly 25 times as much. 1.6 million women and children die prematurely from indoor air pollution caused by burning solid fuels in poorly ventilated spaces. 40 million new cases of chronic bronchitis are caused by exposure to soot and smoke every year. More than 80% of all deaths in developing countries attributable to air pollution-induced lung infections are among children under 5 (Energy Poverty Issues and G 8 Actions, Feb. 2, 2006).
There is also wide disparity, according to the World Energy Council, between the energy consumption levels of the rich and poor. In terms of electricity consumption, the richest 20 percent uses 75 percent of all electricity while the poorest 20 percent uses less than 3 percent.
This is also the reality of energy crisis in the present day world. The billions lacking access to energy services lead to the “famous” “vicious poverty trap”. It affects health of the poor, leads to lower productivity, to food insecurity. But the problem is ignored by the metropolis of the world system.
Unequal distribution of modern energy services and low level of income in poor countries are two of the major reasons that constitute the factor leading to poor access to modern energy services. Lack of or poor infrastructures in the poor countries, lack of resources to develop the required infrastructure, and biased institutional and legal framework also have their share in creating the problem for the poor. Absence of political commitment in favor of the poor is the foremost problem that limits the access to modern energy by the poor. The political commitment is biased, tilted to the rich. It follows the class line.
The poor households in the underdeveloped countries mainly use firewood, dung, tree leaves, crop residues, and in some cases, charcoal. The World Energy Outlook 2006 estimated that $8 billion (including capital and fuel) a year up to 2015 would be required for 2.5 billion people for their switching over to liquid petroleum gas for cooking.
The poor pay a high price for the energy they use: in terms of cash, labor, time, and health. They spend a much greater proportion of their income on energy than wealthy people. In Burkina Faso, a survey found, the poor devoted 5.6 percent and 1.3 percent of their income to firewood and kerosene respectively while in Guatemala and Nepal, firewood expenditure for households in the poorest quintile accounts for 10-15 percent of total household expenditure (R Heltberg, Household Energy and Energy Use in Developing Countries, A Multi-Country Study, 2003).
Studies on Bangladesh environment found that the availability of biomass has decreased. This has increased the hardship of the poor, especially of the women. They have to spend more time to collect biomass. The slum dwellers in Dhaka informed that they cooked once or twice a day instead of three times. That was the way they “innovated” to economize the spending on fuel. The price of firewood compelled them to follow the method though it was not good for food quality and health. The participants in the study suffered from health problems due to smoke from firewood. Villagers from different parts of the country also informed that the availability of biomass decreased. The changed reality taxed them in terms of labor, wage lost, and hardship. Consequently, this touches the limits of nutrition, household income, and productivity. The women had to bear most of the burden as they collected fuel for their families. Sometimes, an entire day was spent by the earning member of a family for collecting firewood (Farooque Chowdhury, “Urban Poor: Never-ending Quest for Energy”, “Scarce Fuel: Growing Scarcer”, and “Fuel, Firewood and Ghatail” in People’s Report 20002-2003: Bangladesh Environment, UNDP, 2004).
These are the people who have been and are being pushed down to energy poverty that constitutes one of the elements of energy crisis. In ultimate analysis, these people have been kept confined within an inefficient system, which they have not organized. Rather, the system constructed by the dominating capital has been imposed on them. The system is so much inefficient that it cannot utilize the labor and creativity of these poor people. That means: the system lacks the capacity to tap energy.
The disparity is not only limited among the rich and the poor. Wide variations are there in the levels of energy consumption, according to the Human Development Report 2007/2008, between industrialized and the underdeveloped countries. Per capita energy consumption in North America is about 18 times that of Africa and four times the world average.
Energy poverty is defined as the “inability to cook with modern cooking fuels and the lack of a bare minimum of electric lighting to read or for other household and productive activities at sunset” (UNDP 2005). By this definition, the 2.5 billion people relying on biomass for cooking and the 1.6 billion people with no access to electricity could be classified as being energy poor.
Originating from the UK and Ireland’s grassroots level environmental health movements in early 1980s the concept of energy poverty or fuel poverty, has gained in importance. “With the energy crises of 1973/74 and 1979,” the World Energy Council said, “low-income households experienced difficulties with increased heating bills. The fuel poverty concept is an interaction between poorly insulated housing and inefficient in-housing energy systems, low-income households and high-energy service prices. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the British Government set up a strategy on fuel poverty aiming at eradicating this phenomenon by 2010 … for vulnerable households and by 2016 for all English households. According to the British standard definition that was adopted, a household is poor in fuel if it needs to spend more than 10% of its income on all fuel use to heat the home to an adequate standard and to meet its needs for other energy services (lighting, cooking, cleaning, etc.).” (World Energy Council, Europe’s Vulnerability to Energy Crisis, 2008) The report added, “In England … the number of households poor in fuel decreased from 5,1 million in 1996 to 1,7 million on 2001 and to 1,2 million on 2004.” Table 1 provides a picture of fuel poverty in a number of European countries during the period 1994-’97. Portugal had the highest percentage of households defined at fuel poverty while Denmark had the lowest.
In the US, the number of households in fuel poverty was 15.9 million (“Fuel Poverty in the USA”, Energy Action, March 2006).
There is difference between the fuel poor in an advanced capitalist country and fuel poor in a poor country. The level of hardship between them also differs. But that does not nullify the reality of inequality in distribution. With the financial and food crises the suffering has increased. For the homeless and the unemployed in the US, the suffering is more. A number of news reports were dispatched by news agencies that the unemployed in the US were finding it hard to pay energy bills. In extreme weather in parts of the US, like all places in the world, the suffering increases.
While the energy poor is one aspect of the crisis there is over-consumption that has contributed to the crisis.
The type and volume of energy used by households differ from country to country. Income levels, natural resources, climate and available energy infrastructure determine these.
Typical households in the OECD countries consume more energy than those in the non-OECD countries. The OECD households with higher income can afford larger homes and purchase more energy-using equipment. In the US, GDP per capita in 2006 was about $43,000 (in real 2005 dollars per person), and residential energy use per capita was estimated at 36.0 million Btu. On the other hand, China’s per-capita income in 2006, at $4,550, was only about one-tenth the US level, and residential energy use per capita was 4.0 million Btu. Poorer households in Asia, Africa and Latin America earn less, and consume less energy.
Table 2 from a World Bank publication (from the section by Alan Townsend, “Energy access, energy demand, and the information deficit”) shows that disparity between the rich and the poor in electricity use is great. Disparity in this area is nil in Albania, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, and Ukraine while it is great in other countries including Ghana, South Africa, Nicaragua, Panama, Nepal, and Vietnam.
The US consumes most energy: 8.0 toe/person/year, followed by India and China with an average energy consumption of 7.3 toe per person per year each. On per capita basis, however, Canada consumes the most energy in the world. Its per capita energy consumption is 6.4 times the world average while that of the US is 5.1 times and Western Europe’s is 2.3 times the world’s average (P O Pineau, Electricity Subsidies in Low Cost Jurisdiction, The Case of British Columbia (Columbia), 2006). Italy consumes the least energy among the industrialized countries (3.1 toe per person per year). Africa’s average energy consumption only 0.14/person/year, a ratio of 1:57, compared to the US. Average energy consumption in Bangladesh is only 0.08 toe per person per year, which is a ratio of 1: 100 when compared to the US that uses about fifteen times more energy per person than does a typical underdeveloped country. While the US share of the world’s population is only 4.6 percent, it accounts for 24 percent of the world’s energy consumption and over 30 percent of GDP. But the least developed countries with 10 percent of the world’s population account for about 1 percent of energy consumption and a mere 1 percent of the world’s GDP (Huq, et al. 2003). The energy situation Africa faces is a mixture of contradictory reality: while the continent desperately needs energy for economic growth and poverty reduction, it is a net exporter of commercial energy. Africa is home to about 7 percent of the world commercial energy, but it accounts for only 3 percent of global commercial energy consumption.
Energy use in the residential sector in 2006, according to the IEO2009 (International Energy Outlook, 2009), accounted for about 15 percent of world delivered energy consumption. Larger homes, the Outlook said, need more energy as these homes tend to use more energy-consuming appliances. On the contrary, smaller homes usually need less energy as the smaller homes have less space to be heated or cooled, produce less heat transfer with the outdoor environment, and the appliances used in these homes are smaller. For example, residential energy consumption is lower in China than in the US. The average residence in China currently has an estimated 300 square feet of living space or less per person while the average residence in the US has an estimated 680 square feet of living space per person. The commercial or the services and institutional sector include businesses, institutions, and organizations providing services (schools, hospitals, water and sewer services, theaters, museums, art galleries, sports facilities, stores, hotels, restaurants, correctional institutions, office buildings, banks), and traffic lights. Economic activities and disposable income going to higher levels lead to increased demand for energy as demands for office space, space for business, hotels, restaurants, and facilities for cultural and leisure activities increase. Energy use per capita in the commercial sector in the non-OECD countries was much lower, 1.3 million Btu in 2006, than in the OECD countries, 16.3 million Btu. The US is the largest consumer of commercially delivered energy in the OECD and remains in that position throughout the projection, accounting for about 44 percent of the OECD total in 2030.
The deeper, the keener observation on the issue, the more inequality gets exposed. The inequality in energy distribution comes from the unequal ownership of the energy resources, and is part of the unequal world system.
The inequality aspect should have the same, if not more, importance as other burning aspects of the energy crisis. Rectifying the inequality is one of the ways to face the crisis. Participation of people strengthens steps to face the crisis. But, shall there have any rational and moral standing if people are asked to contribute to/sacrifice for/play role into facing the crisis if they have no or little or unequal access to the energy resources? The crisis is not their creation. So, one of the first steps to face the energy crisis should be replacing the unequal energy distribution system with an equal and equitable energy distribution system. The other major step should be to inform people about the crisis and inequality so that people get aware. Awareness facilitates people getting organized and taking creative initiatives, and a collective force thus gets mobilized to face the crisis.
To be continued
[This section, modified and elaborated for clarity and completeness, is preceded by two parts of the chapter, “Energy Inequality and Energy Poor” in The Age of Crisis (2009) by Farooque Chowdhury. For easy identification, the section can be considered as part 3 of the chapter.]
comments powered by Disqus