Energy is the key element which connects our societies, politics, and economies to the environment. In present times, it is an inalienable resource required to run our day—to—day lives seamlessly, particularly in the form of electricity. It serves as a catalyst for the growth of developing societies and economies. This, accompanied with the rise in advanced technologies and innovative practices, adds further value to an otherwise constantly evolving standard of living. It ensures the lifting up of society from the clutches of poverty, hunger, water crisis, diseases etc. And yet nearly one sixth of the global population lives without access to clean and smart energy.
As per the Least Developed Country (LDC) Report 2017: “62 percent of people in least-developed countries (LDCs) have no access to electricity, compared with 10 percent across other developing countries. Today, the majority of people worldwide who lack access to electricity live in LDCs — a proportion that has grown steadily from less than one third in 1990.” This statistic emphasizes the fact that access to regular, adequate, safe, affordable, reliable, and diverse energy resources is fundamental to the eradication of poverty, and to promoting social equity and economic development.
Universal access to energy is not just a mere “means to an end” but rather it is a human right in itself, especially when looked upon in light of other basic rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948 recognizes these multiple rights such as that of life, food, shelter, health, education etc. being deeply entwined with access to sufficient energy services. Today, even though reasonable and effective access to energy services is regarded as a human right worldwide, there are communities and places where people still consume toxic fuels such as wood, kerosene, dung, and crop waste to cook and heat their homes, not to mention the glaring lack of electricity grids. Without proper electricity infrastructure, the poor, vulnerable, and isolated cannot be provided with modern services in medical, education, and/or the hospitality industries. They will have fewer opportunities to transform or for that matter even sustain a decent livelihood or job. For instance, with regular and dependable access to electricity, local hospitals can provide facilities such as cold storage of vaccines and medicines, in addition to being able to conduct ultrasounds, x—rays, and other clinical services.
It is these communities, mostly in LDCs and other developing countries, who are vulnerable to catastrophes, both natural and manmade. It should be noted here that though the 2013 World Future Energy Summit established “sustainable energy for all” as a major policy priority for governments, this goal has yet to see the light of day, as many African and Asian nations have majority populations suffering from a lack of sustainable energy and are thus exposed to dangerous emissions.
In 2015, the United Nations adopted a standalone goal on energy, Goal 7,which aims to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy to all by 2030. Notably it will increase the share of renewable energy, amplify the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency by 2030, and develop new energy infrastructure, especially in LDCs. Interestingly, all 17 of the sustainable development goals— tightly interconnected with social, economic, and environmental goals imbedded in human rights— are dependent on the standalone Goal 7, which ensures access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy. This is because all forms of development are subject to the availability of energy resources and services, while sustainable development is reliant on renewable energy resources and services.
Intricately linked to the SDGs of the Paris Climate Accord, climate change mitigation is enmeshed with sustainable development, which holds the promise of ushering in an era of renewables— i.e. a complete energy transition from fossils to clean energy, with maximum outreach. Of course, in the words of the 2017 UN Emissions Gap Report: “the successful implementation of the Paris Agreement and the sustainable development goals agenda will depend on the ability of governments to develop national targets that serve both and take advantage of common opportunities.”
States are thus required to create an unbiased modus—operandi which ensures universal access to energy. It should not just be a moral responsibility, but a constitutional obligation upon the state with no room for evasion or fraud. Given that the national constitution is the custodian of all citizens, it is natural that governments dole out mechanisms which gradually enhance the standard of living and ensure inclusive sustainable development for the people. Universal access to modern, clean, and smart energy mechanisms in this respect should be first and foremost.
The need of the hour is to reach those left behind— i.e. the staggering 1.1 billion people lacking access to electricity and an estimated 2.8 billion without access to clean cooking facilities. It’s imperative for the world community to constantly innovate and create new mediums to increase renewable energy outreach. Remarkably, this energy transition affords an opportunity to leapfrog the conventional energy stage in favor of a renewable energy era, which is vital for human rights justice and climate justice as well. If not achieved, as per the International Energy Agency, more than half a billion people in Sub—Saharan Africa will still be without access to electricity in 2040. Though not currently explicitly specified within international human rights regimes, universal access to sustainable energy has been adopted by several leading international organizations; they have now set the precedent.
It is important for the world to understand that more carbon means more poverty, and the greater the level of sustainability, the greater the equality. Thus, access to renewable energy presents a real opportunity to the underprivileged to reap the benefits of greater access to electricity. Given new technological innovations, distributed renewable energy systems— such as wind turbines, geothermal systems, and/or solar panels— can be made available previously inaccessible lands and communities.
The dawn of the “enernet,” or energy internet, can further streamline the process, provided that quality infrastructure development is provided in these areas. What is required then is to establish access to clean energy as a human right, and not a mere goal of some agenda or for that matter as some foregone derivative conclusion. Though international treaties other than the Paris Climate Accord, such as the New Urban Agenda (Habitat III), International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the UN Declaration on the Right to Development, the African Charter of Human and Peoples’ Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, Earth Summit-Johannesburg Declaration on Sustainable Development, the Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment etc.— do accentuate the importance of reliable access to energy as a precursor to improving and protecting other human rights, this access only exists as a criterion.
Access to energy has now become a cornerstone of modern civilization. Therefore, in order to ensure the survival of the human race itself, reliable access to clean energy should be made a stipulated human right at all levels of governance, whether national or international.
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