Education: December 2009 Archives
In April 2009, the French environmental magazine Terra Eco published a story on the Solar Electric Light Fund, “SELF and the Empire of the Electifying Sun.” That story grabbed the attention of of Vu du Ciel, a National Geographic - like program hosted by world-renowned photographer Yann Arthus-Bertrand.
You may have seen or own a copy of Arthus-Bertrand’s stunningly beautiful coffee table book Earth from Above. Or perhaps you have watched HOME, the documentary about planet Earth (as seen from above) that was filmed and produced by Arthus-Bertrand and made freely available to the world via the Internet.
On November 26, 2009, French television broadcast a 90-minute episode of Vu du Ciel entitled “The End of Oil” which featured SELF’s work in Benin, West Africa.
Here’s the English-language version of SELF’s segment in the program:
One of the events I attended was a CNN/YouTube–sponsored debate that featured the following panelists: Yvo de Boer, Exec. Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, NY Times Op-Ed columnist and Pulitzer-prize winning author Thomas Friedman, actor/environmentalist Daryl Hannah, and Bjorn Lomborg, Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.
Mr. Lomborg, an environmental skeptic, says he believes in the concept of anthropogenic (human-induced) climate change, but unlike the vast majority of people and organizations who attended COP15, he doesn’t think that cutting carbon emissions is the best approach to dealing with the problem. Instead, he argues, we should invest our time and money helping those who are most vulnerable to the adverse affects of global warming.
In an article (“Time for a Smarter Approach to Global Warming”) that appeared in the Dec 15, 2009 edition of the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg states that “money spent on carbon cuts is money we can’t use for effective investments in food aid, micronutrients, HIV/AIDs prevention, health and education infrastructure, and clean water and sanitation.”
While I appreciate Mr. Lomborg’s concern for the poor—and yes, it is true that the world’s poorest citizens will, in fact, suffer the greatest from climate change even though they are least responsible for causing it—I do not agree with his reductionist way of thinking. It’s the same old false dichotomy of “the economy versus the environment” argument, repackaged in a different form and for a different audience.
According to Mr. Lomborg, people who are dying of AIDS or malaria, or who are worrying about how they’re going to get their next meal, could care less about global warming. That may well be true, but dealing with their individual plights while ignoring the causes simply perpetuates and compounds their problems. He fails to recognize that unless the rural poor gain access to modern energy services, they will have little hope of ever dealing effectively with the host of ills and injustices that plague their lives.
This point was certainly not lost on Tom Friedman who, sitting right next to Bjorn Lomborg at the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, astutely countered Mr. Lomborg’s specious argument with the following remarks:
…every problem Bjorn referred to is an energy problem. The school that has no light, that’s an energy problem. A clinic in a remote part of Africa that doesn’t have the capacity to refrigerate medicines, that’s an energy problem. These are all energy problems, and if we, the developed countries, take the lead in driving down the cost of distributed energy, we are solving both problems (climate and poverty).
Needless to say, I concur with Tom Friedman, and I am also pleased that I had an opportunity to contribute to his thinking on the subject of energy poverty, a topic to which he devotes a full chapter in his book, Hot, Flat and Crowded. I am grateful to Mr. Friedman for having quoted me in his book, and more importantly, for having articulated to a global audience the indispensable role that modern energy must play in meeting the Millennium Development Goals. Thanks to Hot, Flat, and Crowded, people around the world are now familiar with the concept of energy poverty.
Had I had the opportunity to interject in yesterday’s CNN/YouTube debate, I would have described to Mr. Lomborg my recent trip to northern Benin, where I witnessed a dramatic improvement in food security thanks to solar power and its ability to pump water for drip irrigation. Or, I might have cited the example of Dr. Paul Farmer whose organization Partners In Health is now using solar as the primary source of power for its rural health centers in Rwanda, Lesotho and Haiti — where tens of thousands of poor patients are being treated for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and other diseases. Or, perhaps I would have mentioned Zwelenqaba High School in rural South Africa, where students are now able to gain computer skills and access information via the Internet thanks to a solar-powered computer lab that was installed last year.
These are perfect examples of how investing in clean, renewable energy for the developing world can not only help mitigate against climate change but also improve the health, education and economic security of some of the poorest people on earth.
At the CNN/YouTube debate in Copenhagen, and again in the Wall Street Journal, Mr. Lomborg calls for an increase in R&D in the cleantech space as the best way to counter global warming. While I agree that basic research is important, the fact is, a number of renewable energy solutions, including solar and wind, have already benefited over the past couple of decades from dramatic reductions in cost and improvements in efficiency. Solar cells are now being produced for under $1.00 per watt, and new breakthroughs are being announced on a regular basis. Interestingly, the innovations are being driven by business opportunity as much as anything.
Even without further technological breakthroughs, however, solar energy today represents the least-cost option for generating electric power in parts of the world that are not connected to a conventional utility grid.
We don’t need to wait any longer before we help those most vulnerable to the impact of climate change by enabling them to adopt clean energy solutions in their own lives and communities.
It’s time for a smarter—and more holistic—approach to combating climate change. Let’s turn to the sun to help people and the planet.
“I’m lovin’ it”?? There is still hope in Copenhagen. And a sense that our time is running out. The sincerity of the world’s young people is on full display, as Bishop Desmond Tutu observed.
The question I’m raising is: can our governments and our businesses show the same level of commitment?
Earlier, Bishop Tutu had raised the question of how much rich nations are willing to pay poor ones to secure emission cuts. The point he made is that one we have been making for some time now: the fight against energy poverty must be a global priority.
Our position is simple: energy is a human right.
A few days ago, Prince Nasheed of the Maldives eloquently invited leaders to join him in signing a pact for the survival of their low-lying coastal countries, instead of a “suicide pact” at the UN climate talks in Copenhagen. Watch:
In spite of all the uncertainty surrounding COP15, I'm going to Copenhagen as an optimist. I agree with Bill McKibben's point that we need a dramatic breakthrough in Copenhagen, and I believe there are signs that President Obama's behind-the-scenes negotiations just may pay off.
For nearly 20 years, the mission of our Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) has been to provide solar power and communications to a quarter of the world’s population living in energy poverty.
SELF believes that energy is a human right.
To meet global challenges such as food and water scarcity, climate change and poverty, SELF is working to assign greater priority to the importance of sustainable energy among international development banks, aid agencies, foundations, and philanthropic individuals, who are committed to improving the health, education, and economic prospects of the world's poorest citizens.
We define energy poverty as a lack of access to clean and efficient energy systems. Energy poverty exacts its toll on the health, education, food and livelihoods of the world’s poorest people. Energy is a foundation, a prime condition, a prerequisite to a healthy living and a competitive economy, without which:
- Health Clinics go without lighting and medical equipment and without necessary refrigeration to preserve vaccines and other vital medicines for yellow fever, polio, tetanus, whooping cough, and hepatitis A and B.
- Schools go without dependable lighting to facilitate education and ensure the well-being of their students.
- Community knowledge is compromised when connectivity by radio and telephone is not possible.
- Agricultural production is hindered by lack of irrigation systems, which leads to the loss of precious day-light hours to traditional fuel-gathering, severely impeding economic progress.
- Homes are lit with kerosene lamps, which give dim and wavering light, emit cancer-causing smoke, and cause thousands of devastating house fires every year. In contrast, light produced by solar power is carbon free clean, steady, bright, and safe.
- Drinking water is dangerously contaminated with disease-carrying waste and agricultural runoff.
- Micro-Enterprise is severely hampered, as nightfall comes at about 6:30 p.m. year-round, effectively ending the productive work day without access to electric light.
- Urban Migration causes explosive growth of cities in developing nations, straining the natural environment and overwhelming cities' social service systems.
- The lack of irrigation leads to unsustainable farming practices.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the Kalalé District of Benin in West Africa - a poor, dry region in the northern part of the country with approximately 100,000 people - none of whom have access to the electric grid. The economy, as in most rural districts, is mainly based on agriculture with more than 95% of the population involved with farming. Despite its great potential, crop production in Kalalé remains weak and easily influenced by natural conditions. There is precious little rainfall during the six-month dry season that runs from November through April each year.
You can learn about SELF's work in Benin here. This is the whole-village development concept that SELF has been implementing for some time now. We call it our Solar Integrated Development ( SID) Model, and we'd like to scale the process across Africa.
My hope for Copenhagen is that we might just succeed in making the fight against energy poverty a global priority.
I believe SELF has created the right model for sustainable development across much of rural Africa, China, and India. It's time we used solar energy to reap a digital dividend (as C.K. Prahalad calls it) for the poor. Fighting energy poverty is, in my mind, a cleantech opportunity. Sustainability and innovation go hand in hand.
I'm confident we will see a new "coalition of the willing" emerge in Copenhagen - this time to save the Earth. The consequences of inaction are too serious to ignore.
My next blog post will be from Copenhagen. Stay tuned.