Energy Poverty: India's Best Kept Secret


Photo credit: Ximena Prugue
This guest post is by Ximena Prugue, winner of the 2011 UNEP/TreeHugger World Environment Day blogging contest.

During a business luncheon with the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) in India for World Environment Day, there was a lot of talk of the steps to take to give India's economy a green makeover and why it's important to do so. The speeches by Minister Ramesh and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner were inspiring and made the idea of a green economy concrete and understandable. Something that befuddled me, however, was that there was no mention of energy poverty, or the electrification of rural villages on the agenda. Did I miss something?

Explaining Energy Poverty

Energy poverty is defined as having little or no access to electricity and relying on fossil fuels for daily activities, such as cooking and lighting. When most people think poverty, they think of malnutrition, world hunger, lack of access to clean water, and an array of other social problems involving poverty, but usually not involving energy. Rural villagers who suffer from energy poverty are actually taking the biggest hit of all forms of poverty. The number one killer of children under the age of five is pneumonia. It's not water-borne diseases, AIDS, or any other seemingly obvious reason. Millions of children are dying every year from the basic necessity of light--every 20 seconds to be exact.

Using kerosene lamps for lighting and cooking with cow dung release toxic emissions that are directly linked to eye infections, lower respiration infections, and lung cancer. Inhaling the emissions of a kerosene lamp is equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes in a single day, which can probably explain why two-thirds of lung cancer victims that are actually non-smokers. A single kerosene lamp emits one ton of carbon dioxide over the course of five years (or the equivalent from driving your car from Miami, Florida to Seattle, Washington); and in total, all kerosene lamps combined release 144 million tons of carbon emissions into atmosphere each year.

Let's do some math now:
Eighty percent of the energy poverty occurs in India.
Sixty percent of India's population lives in rural villages.
Therefore: The majority of India is rural, and those rural areas make up the majority of energy poverty in the world.
Why isn't anyone else making a big deal about this?

If Minister Ramesh believes that India should be the world leader in solar-power, why is there no discussion on starting in the most affected areas--the villages? In my experience working in the villages of India as part of the Giving the Green Light initiative, the lack of access to electricity goes beyond inconvenience. During a village meeting, I met a woman who had the entire left side of her body burned by a kerosene lamp.


Photo credit: Ximena Prugue
The Global Impact of Kerosene

Not only are they dangerous, but also highly combustible, and when the kerosene is not fully combusted, its produces black soot, or the chemical formally known as black carbon. Black carbon is as scary and gross as it sounds and contributes to 60% of the global warming effect. China and India make up almost 30% of black carbon emissions. Did you catch the math there? If black carbon is the biggest problem in global warming, and China and India are the biggest contributors to black carbon, then China and India are contributing the most amounts to the biggest problem in global warming!

UC San Diego atmospheric scientist V. Ramanathan has conducted research that indicates the warming effects of black carbon are accelerating the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Hmm, that rings a bell. I'm pretty sure Ramesh pointed out India's vulnerability to global warming and the Himalayan glaciers melting in his speech, since it provides drinking water to billions of people throughout Asia. NO BIGGIE. But where's the black carbon coming from? The villages, people!

Turning Attention to the Villages

No matter what is done to reform India's corporate sector, if the majority of India is made up of rural villagers, why doesn't the majority rule this time? As much as I feel that Ramesh's other points are pivotal for India's economy, I feel like energy poverty was the kid that didn't make the basketball team--or, er, cricket team. If India wants to make it to the (solar) finals, they need to put energy poverty on their game plan.

You can find out more about what Giving the Green Light is doing to alleviate energy poverty in rural India through their website.
You can also watch this short video that sums up what we do.

Read more about energy problems and solutions:
Opinion Piece Warns"Gas is Greener"
Can a Tiny Weatherproof Solar Light Bulb Replace Kerosene Lights?
Making the Connection Between Energy Consumption and Global Warming

Tags: Chemicals | Global Warming Causes | India | Poverty | Solar Power

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