Slow Transition to Clean Energy Puts Billions at Risk of Household Air Pollution
Traditional cooking in India

The high cost of energy and negligible progress in rolling out electricity in sub-Saharan Africa since 2010 are some of the factors behind why 2.3 billion people are still reliant on cooking fuels like coal and firewood that harm their health.

Meanwhile, the transition to renewable energy has been too slow – and there has been a substantial drop in international finance available to help developing countries make this transition.

These are some of the findings of the 2023 edition of Tracking SDG 7: The Energy Progress Report  released on Tuesday, which warns that the world is far off track to meet Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7,  “ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy”.

The goal is broken down into access to electricity and clean cooking (7.1), a substantial increase in renewable energy (7.2) and doubling the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030 (7.3).

The report is published by the SDG 7 custodian agencies, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD), the World Bank, and the World Health Organization (WHO).

“Attaining [SDG 7] will have a deep impact on people’s health and well-being, helping to protect them from environmental and social risks such as air pollution, and expanding access to primary health care and services,” according to the agencies in a media release.

Dirty fuel pollutes household air

According to WHO, 3.2 million people die each year from illnesses caused by the use of polluting fuels that increase household air pollution. Africa alone faces 1.1 million deaths from air pollution, second only to malnutrition.

“The use of traditional biomass also means households spend up to 40 hours a week gathering firewood and cooking, which prohibits women from pursuing employment or participating in local decision-making bodies and children from going to school,” according to the report, which adds that traditional fuel perpetuates “gender inequity, deforestation, and climate damage”.

While access to cleaner cooking fuels has improved since 2010 when 2.9 billion used dirty household energy, some 1.9 billion people would still be without access to clean cooking in 2030 – with 60% of these living in Sub-Saharan Africa – if current trends are followed. 

The economic impact of COVID-19 and soaring energy prices might also push 100 million people who recently transitioned to clean cooking to revert to using traditional biomass.

Eastern Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean were the only regions to sustain progress in access to clean cooking between 2019 and 2021. 

“Access to electricity and clean cooking still display great regional disparities and should be the focus of action to ensure that no one is left behind. Investment needs to reach the least-developed countries and sub-Saharan Africa to ensure more equitable progress toward Goal 7,” said Francesco La Camera, Director-General of IRENA.

Impressive electrification in South and Central Asia

Globally, 91% of the world’s population had access to electricity in 2021 in comparison to 84% in 2010 – an increase pf more than a billion people.

In Central and Southern Asia, 414 million people had no electricity in 2010 but this was slashed to 24 million by 2021, with Bangladesh and India singled out for their progress.

Eastern and South-eastern Asia cut those without electricity from 90 million to 35 million during the same period. 

But in Sub-Saharan Africa, over 80% of the 524 million people in rural areas are without access to electricity in 2021 – almost unchanged since 2010. Globally, around 675 million people don’t have access to electricity.

Swing to renewables is too slow but accelerating

Solar panels provide electricity to Mulalika Clinic in Zambia.

Global use of renewable electricity has grown from 26.3% in 2019 to 28.2% in 2020, the largest single-year increase since the start of tracking SDG 7 progress.

international public financial flows in support of clean energy in low- and middle-income countries have been decreasing since before the COVID-19 pandemic and funding is limited to a small number of countries.

Efforts to increase renewables’ share in heating and transport, which represent more than three-quarters of global energy consumption, remain off target to achieve 1.5oC climate objectives.

In addition, international public financial flows in support of clean energy in developing countries stand at $10.8 billion in 2021, 35% less than the 2010–2019 average. And this is financial flow is concentrated in 19 countries, which received 80% of the commitments.

The report will be presented to top decision-makers at a special launch event on 11 July at the High-Level Political Forum (HLPF) on Sustainable Development, ahead of the second SDG Summit in September 2023 in New York.

Image Credits: Nigel Bruce/WHO, Shruti Singh/ Unsplash, UNDP/Karin Schermbrucker for Slingshot .

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