Photo courtesy Jonathan Talbot, World Resources Institute

Photo courtesy Jonathan Talbot, World Resources Institute

By Ulrich Bang

Millions of people around the world will show their support for climate action today by turning off their lights during the global Earth Hour campaign. Yet at the same time, the action of plunging into darkness should serve to remind us that, in the developing world, the main goal of poverty alleviation is often to keep the lights on, or to get them turned on in the first place.

Of the 6.5 billion people on the planet, the World Bank estimates that roughly 1.7 billion live without electricity. The lack is most acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 500 million people have no access to modern energy. Just 2 percent of people living in rural areas have access to electricity.

Because energy underlies most economic activity, the lack of it helps keep poor people in poverty. Women and children at home are the most affected because poor households often do not have the resources to obtain cleaner, more efficient fuels and appliances. According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution—generated largely by inefficient and poorly ventilated stoves burning biomass fuels such as wood, crop waste and dung, or coal—is responsible for the deaths of an estimated 1.6 million people annually. That’s one death every 20 seconds. 

In most poor countries, women are in charge of cooking, and, depending on the demands of local cuisine, they spend between three and seven hours per day near the stove, preparing food. As a consequence, females account for nearly 60 percent of deaths attributable to indoor air pollution.

And because young children are often carried on their mother’s backs or kept close to the warm hearth, infants often spend many hours breathing indoor smoke during their first year of life—when their developing airways make them particularly vulnerable to hazardous pollutants. As a result, 56 percent of deaths attributable to indoor air pollution occur in children under five years of age. 

These statistics are alarming, and represent individuals around the world whose lives could easily be improved by access to light through sustainable energy. Turning on the lights can extend the working day, provide more light for study and adult literacy classes, reduce time and cost to collect fuel, and increase community activities.

Knowing this, when you turn off your lights for Earth Hour, use the darkness as a reminder: while it is necessary to make wise energy choices at home, sustainable energy solutions are vital for poor people around the world. Let’s get their lights turned on.

This guest contribution is from Ulrich Bang, Sustainable Energy Advisor at CARE International’s Poverty, Environment and Climate Change Network, based in Ghana.

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