In Zambia, Nepal, and Vietnam, modern energy resources are extremely unfairly distributed — more so than income, general spending, or even spending on leisure. As a consequence, poorer households use more dirty energy than richer households, with ensuing health and gender impacts. Cooking with inefficient fuels consumes a lot of energy, and even more when water needs to be boiled before drinking. But do households with higher incomes and more devices have a better chance of escaping poverty? Some do, but having higher incomes and mobile phones are not either prerequisites or guarantees of having basic needs satisfied. Richer households without access to electricity or sanitation are not spared from having malnourished children or health problems from using charcoal. Ironically, for most households, it is easier to obtain a mobile phone than a clean, nonpolluting fuel for cooking. Therefore, measuring progress via household income leads to an incomplete understanding of poverty and its deprivations.
So what? Are we arguing against the global south using more energy for development? No: instead of focusing on how much energy is used, we are pointing to the importance of collective services (like electricity, indoor sanitation and public transport) for alleviating the multiple deprivations of poverty. In addressing these issues we cannot shy away from asking why so many countries in the global south have such a low capacity to invest in those services. It has to do with the fact that poverty does not just happen: it is created via interlinked systems of wealth extraction such as structural adjustment, or high costs of servicing national debts. Given that climate change is caused by the energy use of a rich minority in the global north but the consequences are borne by the majority in the poorer global south, human development is not only a matter of economic justice but also climate justice. Investing in vital collective services underpins both.
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