Interweaving Energy Poverty and the Just Energy Transition Agenda
Most countries’ low-carbon transition plans include a coal phase-out strategy, as is already happening in countries such as South Africa. This has also resulted in Development Finance Institutions starting to divest from coal-based energy systems and supporting renewable energy generation, backed by rapid advances in technology and increasingly cost-competitive renewable energy. However, within the broader “energy transition” discourse lies the “just energy transition” agenda, in which those made poor and vulnerable by the climate crisis should not be further disadvantaged. Instead, they should be fully engaged, not only in identifying challenges, but also in determining solutions to the climate crisis.
In many cases, projects to facilitate the energy transition itself are earmarked to happen within societies that already have a massive energy deficit to meet their household and production needs, especially in the global south. In the last few years, the use of clean energy, especially solar and LP gas, in African households has improved considerably, at least in urban areas. However, lack of access to affordable, clean, and modern energy has a disproportionately negative impact on the lives and livelihoods of low-income families, especially in rural areas, because it further drowns them in a pool of poverty that reduces the quality of their health, food production and the ability to generate sufficient income. In the 21st century, far too many people lack access to electricity and/or cannot afford this basic right. These are societies that are living in energy poverty.
Energy poverty can be summarised as the inability to meet one’s energy needs, especially the needs directly impacting the household. Energy poverty tends to affect low-income households due to several factors, which include but are not limited to lack of income, household power dynamics, distance and lack of transportation, lack of energy subsidies and low-literacy levels. Given the extent of energy poverty globally and specifically within Sub-Sahara Africa, energy transition cannot be dealt with in isolation without considering the vast opportunities it presents for most of Sub-Sahara Africa which is rich in transitional minerals. For example, clean energy projects represent billions for Zimbabwe’s income generation. Zimbabwe is one of the key countries that has mineral deposits of transitional minerals such as lithium (Zimbabwe holds Africa's largest lithium reserves, the fifth-largest globally), and copper (in Zimbabwe there are over 70 copper deposits). The exploitation of these minerals requires Climate-Smart Mining which supports the sustainable extraction and processing of minerals and metals, while minimising environmental, climate and disaster risks and also ensuring that social and economic benefits trickle down to those at the bottom of the pyramid who are mostly exposed to energy poverty.
A just energy transition that encompasses energy equity would leverage the much-needed change within the climate arena. Among the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), affordable and clean energy (Goal 7) was included to ensure affordable, reliable and sustainable energy for all (UN, 2018). To accelerate the achievement of Goal 7, Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) was established to ensure access to affordable and clean energy for household use as well as for productive uses. Activities supported and mobilised by SE4All include a clean cooking programme, energy access in remote rural areas, healthcare improvement, policy and regulatory frameworks that aim to leave no-one behind and reduce energy poverty. Reducing Energy Poverty is very crucial because it is linked to the deaths of about 4 million people per year from exposure to indoor air pollution (Sovacool, 2019). ILO (2012) found that of these deaths 60% were female since women bear the brunt of household cooking and in the absence of clean cooking technologies are exposed to toxic smoke from traditional cookstoves (biomass, kerosene, or coal and firewood stoves). The study also shows that burning traditional biofuels for domestic use increases the risk of pneumonia by 80% as compared to using clean cooking facilities and doubles the chances of developing lung disease and lung cancer (Srivastas, 2022). Looking at these statistics and findings, the need to end energy poverty to achieve the 17 SDGs becomes clear and it requires the collective efforts of the whole world.
Exploring and unpacking the just energy transition is the one of the key cogs of the Climate Media Collaborative for Economic Justice and Community Rights project which Green Governance Zabwe Trust is implementing in Zimbabwe in partnership with Oxfam in Southern Africa. By recognizing local knowledge and capacity, and scaling- up what is already working, the organisation will support community rights, shift economic narratives away from extractives and dirty development, and strengthen global climate action to create real and measurable improvements for frontline communities in Zimbabwe.
Clariss Rufaro Masiya is Gender and Social Inclusion Officer at Green Governance Zimbabwe Trust. Nyasha Frank Mpahlo is Executive Director Green Governance Zimbabwe Trust