Why Now Is the Time to Make Energy Access in Cities a Top Priority

Two men in Bosnia and Herzegovina install solar panels on their roof. Photo by UNDP in Europe and Central Asia / Flickr

Urban leaders from around the world are meeting in Quito, Ecuador, on October 17-20, 2016, to set the global agenda for the future of cities at the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, known as Habitat III. Through the World Resources Report (WRR) on sustainable cities, WRI offers real-world research that aims to convert plans into implementation to create cities that live, move and thrive.  

Adelaida, a banker and mother born and raised in Accra, is a typical middle-income resident of Ghana’s capital city. She earns about $250 a month, but because she spends about a quarter of her income on electricity, Adelaida is considered energy-poor. While most homes in Accra are connected to the national energy grid, they are often unable access electricity due to the high cost. Not only is this very expensive, but service is frequently interrupted by unannounced power cuts, hampering Adelaida’s ability to do her household chores and store food.

When delegates gather in Quito for Habitat III to adopt the New Urban Agenda—a vision for inclusive, resilient and sustainable cities—they should remember the Adelaidas of the world. As a forthcoming paper of the World Resources Report shows, ensuring access to affordable energy and the economic opportunity it brings will be essential for a sustainable, prosperous urban future.

The Urban Side of Energy Access

Energy access has often been viewed through a rural lens, but it remains a vexing and overlooked urban problem as well. In urban areas around the world, 132 million people lack access to electricity and 482 million people cook over ‘dirty’ solid fuels, such as wood or charcoal. Cities that are already struggling to provide clean, affordable, reliable energy for their residents will likely find it challenging to keep pace between now and 2050, when the urban population is expected to be 2.5 billion more than it is today, with most of the increase in Africa and Asia.

Energy is a prerequisite for economic growth and productivity, as it provides the services necessary for people’s homes and livelihoods. Furthermore, how a city consumes energy has major impacts on human health.  For example, household air pollution from solid fuels accounted for 3.5 million deaths globally in 2010. Moving forward, cities in the rapidly urbanizing parts of world face three fundamental challenges:

1.      How to provide quality energy access, while addressing the vexing issues of reliability              and cost?

The urban poor in developing countries spend a significant portion of their income on energy, often as much as 14-22 percent. In Kibera, Nairobi, energy expenditures can reach up to 20–40 percent of monthly incomes. Even where populations have access to electricity, unreliability and inefficiency can be acute problems, particularly in South Asia. For example, the average number of power outages per month experienced by firms in South Asia exceeded 25 in 2013. Because of this unreliability, people and firms with grid connections are often forced to use dirty diesel generators to supplement their power—at costs many times that of conventional grid electricity.

2.     How to increase energy services while improving efficiency?

In a number of megacities in the developing world, the growth rates in electricity consumption far exceed population growth. While increasing electricity consumption is a development imperative, it will be difficult for many cities to sustain this rate of consumption, particularly given inefficiencies and line losses. In Lagos, for example, line losses are estimated to be 40 percent of total electricity consumption, compared to less than 10 percent in London or Los Angeles.

3.     Given the climate imperative, how to shift to cleaner, less carbon-intensive energy?

Cities in the developing world will not be able to follow the unsustainable development models of wealthier, more developed cities. Dramatic greenhouse gas (GHG) emission reductions are necessary—at least 40 to 70 percent below 2010 levels globally—if there is to be a likely chance for global warming to stay below 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) by century’s end. And because cities are responsible for about 70 percent of global GHGs, they play a substantial role in this mitigation effort.

Exploring Potential Urban Solutions

The forthcoming WRR paper on energy will ask the key question: how can cities in the developing world simultaneously provide cleaner, more affordable, and more reliable energy services to the underserved, while ensuring that the city becomes more economically prosperous and enhancing overall environmental quality?

The report will present solutions that, first, meet the urgent need to enhance services for the underserved in terms of access, cost, reliability, health and livelihoods, and that, second, avoid long-term lock-in of energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from energy infrastructure. The focus will be on urban energy solutions that can largely be implemented within the city itself. The aim is to inform urban change agents—a broad suite of actors from national and regional government, international finance institutions, civil society, and the private sector—on critical urban energy action areas.

As the international community focuses on implementing the New Urban Agenda after Quito, urban energy must be a priority. Providing clean, affordable, reliable energy in urban areas, particularly in regions that are rapidly urbanizing, is also indispensable to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of ensuring modern energy access to all and creating cities that are inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This is a seminal opportunity to create a new city, where everyone has access to energy to power their lives and thrive.

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