Energy as a dimension of poverty

In the contemporary world, access to energy is one aspect of an adequate standard of living, enshrined in Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. SDG 7 aims to ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all’ by 2030. Energy facilitates the use of a range of services, including lighting, cooking, heating and cooling (Day et al., 2016: 259).

Considerable progress has been made in expanding access to electricity since 2000, but 1.1 billion people remained without access in 2016. Moreover, the majority of those who gained access to electricity in the period 2000–2016 relied on power generation from fossil fuels, despite growing access to renewables in the past 5 years (IEA, 2017: 11–12). While access to electricity has steadily improved, access to clean cooking energy remained stagnant between 2000 and 2016, with 2.8 billion people without clean cooking fuel (IEA, 2017. This is a highly gendered issue, given that it is women who have primary responsibility for cooking around the world (Shimada and Matsuoka, 2011). Children are also at higher risk from respiratory illnesses caused by pollution from domestic cooking fuels (Patel et al., 2019).

What the research reveals about energy access and deprivation

Energy deprivation relates to a shortage in energy or to the use of energy from lower quality and/or polluting sources. Insufficient availability of clean energy sources may force households to use inferior forms of polluting energy sources (Sola et al., 2016), such as firewood, crop residue, dung cake and other solid fuels, that are known to cause higher emissions than clean sources (Patel et al., 2019).

The use of polluting energy sources for cooking or lighting is one of the main causes of household air pollution. These emissions have long-term adverse health consequences, such as a long-lasting cough, respiratory infections and lung diseases (Patel et al., 2019). Further adverse health outcomes from household air pollution include stroke, ischaemic heart disease, tuberculosis, asthma, ear and upper respiratory infections, lung cancer, cervical cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (Kim et al., 2011). Approximately 4.3 million deaths per year are caused by household air pollution (Patel et al., 2019).

Biomass fuels are one of the most widely used primary energy sources in poorer countries (González-Eguino, 2015). Cooking with biomass fuel, such as firewood and dung cake, requires people to spend time collecting and preparing fuel, as well as lighting and tending to the fire. The subsequent time loss reduces productivity and opportunities for income generation (Simkovich et al., 2019).

Women and children are largely responsible for fuel collection and may consequently have fewer opportunities to earn an income, obtain an education, participate in activities or relax (Simkovich et al., 2019). Collecting and carrying firewood may have long-term adverse health consequences, including chronic spinal conditions and headaches. Furthermore, such jobs increase threats of physical and sexual violence, as well as animal attacks (WHO, 2016).

What the IMMP reveals about energy

During the participatory research that underpins the IMMP, participants identified the use of biomass as the main source of cooking fuel as an indicator of deprivation. The lack of energy sources for cooking and lighting, or unreliable sources, was also identified as indicating poverty. Participants considered those who had access to electricity were less poor than those who did not.

In all research sites, the gendered nature of fuel collection was highlighted, with this responsibility falling to women and children (particularly girls). In several countries, particularly in southern Africa and in rural areas, women who participated in the research spoke of the threats to personal security posed by collecting fuel (and also water), with both harassment and physical and sexual assaults identified by participants as genuine risks.

What the IMMP Energy dimension measures

The energy dimension of the IMMP consists of three themes: source and reliability of cooking energy, source and reliability of lighting energy, and threats and hazards associated with energy/fuel collection.

Theme 1: Cooking energy sources and reliability

The first theme, cooking energy sources and reliability, is is constructed from one indicator of the same name, which considers two variables: the source of cooking energy, and its reliability.

Theme 2: Lighting energy sources and reliability

The second theme considers lighting energy source and reliability through one indicator of the same name, through two variables: lighting energy source, and its reliability. The sources of energy are categorised as ‘clean’ (electricity, natural gas/LPG and biogas) or ‘unclean’ (all other sources) (WHO, 2016). Reliability is measured by the sufficiency of energy supplies, meaning how often individuals have enough energy/fuel to meet their needs for cooking and lighting.

Theme 3: Energy collection threats

The third theme considers the threats or hazards faced by individual respondents while collecting energy from outside the dwelling. It has a single indicator constructed from two variables. These variables consider an individual's responsibility for collecting energy/fuel outside the home, and whether they experience any threats or hazards when doing so.

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