Two of the most important issues of our century — clean energy and poverty eradication — are potentially mutually exclusive, if development efforts do not factor in increased consumption that will occur.
Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF between 1995-2005, said towards the end of the last century “The eradication of poverty must be at the center of our development efforts [in] the 21st century.” That the poor should have access to education, clean water, electricity and a decent place to live, has few opponents.
Today in the world, there are millions of people working actively in governments, NGOs, and personal efforts to even historically unfair playing fields so that basic human rights — the right to an education, food, cloths and shelter — are not available for the fortunate, but for everyone fortunate enough to find themselves in possession of a life.
But what happens if progress in poverty’s eradication far-outpaces green energy solutions? A quick glance at the numbers seems that this is the scenario we currently face. According to the UN’s numbers, between 1990 and 2015 the proportion of people living on incomes of less than $1.25 a day has been halved since 1990. In 2010, 700 million fewer people lived in poverty than in 1990. The world’s population is growing while poverty levels are decreasing.
Numbers on green energy are far less inspiring. In places like China the poor are rising to the ranks of middle class with through-the-roof growth rates. Incomes have quadrupled since 2004 and been squared since 1980. Reflective of this is China’s building on average three new power stations every week — many of these coal plants. By 2030, it plans to have a power capacity that will be larger than what exists in the US, the UK and Australia today. The graph (see graphic below) shows the increase in China’s coal consumption since 1950. Despite upward trends in renewable energy across the world, these numbers are neither keeping pace with population growth nor development levels. Wealth in this sense is a synonym for consumption and consumption sits shotgun pollution. Numbers seem encouraging in green energy since they are moving in the right direction, but they are being outpaced by progress with the poor becoming un-poor.
Within this problem is also an opportunity. I agree with Bellamy that the eradication of poverty must be the center of our development efforts but would add that at the center of that should be development done in a way that minimizes increased consumption and strain on our ecosystems. Social development programs should operate not with just the goal of eradicating poverty, but doing it in a way that allows those emerging from deprivation to bypass the environmental pitfalls the rest of the world stumbled over during its own development. More than just focusing on government policy and driving down the cost of green energy, families in development programs should be educated and encouraged to adopt green habits.
The Integral Heart Foundation, a charity I’ve done work with over the past four years, works to give children and families and education that will break them out of the cycle of generational poverty, but do so in a way which will make these families as green as the foliage flushed hills around them. While giving them educational and microfinance opportunities, they also install solar units in their homes and teach them about being responsible stewards of their existing resources.
They know that the only way to get impoverished individuals to buy into behavior that benefits the environment is if it makes financial sense. Founder Mick Quin found that the average candle-lit household in Guatemala spends about $250 annually on candles. Instead of linking these families to the grid where they can begin consuming electricity to light their houses at roughly the same cost, they install $240 solar units within their homes to that their light can come from off-grid, green energy. Families make payments on these units and once they are paid off, new units are purchased for other families.
This example of combining educational opportunities coupled with green habits is a an example of grassroots development getting it right. Our world needs sustainable energy solutions. It needs social justice for the marginalized poor. But it also needs to find social justice without environmental harm. This is possible with the right mindset. With the wrong mindset and narrow ideas of development, you solve one problem and create a new one.
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