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Why Girls Need Sunshine: Three Reasons Why World Leaders Gathering in New York Next Week Must Take Real Action on Climate Change

23/09/2014 15:31 BST | Updated 22/11/2014 10:59 GMT

Sometimes you come across incredible ways to take action on climate change. Ways that not only lower harmful emissions but that also improve lives.

WWF is proud to be a partner in a powerful local initiative in Uganda that puts solar panels on roofs. This power provides electricity to people without it. That electricity brings power in more than one form. It can enable safer births, better health and improved gender equality. If this sounds like a lot, it is.

And I'm going to tell you how it works.

"Our eyes are burning, and we get tired easily."

It's January, just seven months ago. Uenice, Scovia and Jofit are three girls who live in the Kasese district in Uganda. They are breathing toxic fumes from the kerosene lamps that they light every night once darkness falls. These kerosene lamps produce smoke and soot - enough to make anyone cough and lead to chronic respiratory infections.

The fact is that 4.3 million people globally lose their lives to indoor pollution related illness each year, caused by things like kerosene lamps and open fires for cooking. That is higher than how many people who lose their lives from AIDS and malaria combined. Most of these people are women and children under the age of five.

Cleaner energy can be a part of changing this story.

A single solar panel on a home's roof can power up to six light bulbs. This brings light. This brings improved indoor air quality - instantly. This also brings savings - money no longer spent on kerosene. That money enables people - mostly women - to spend instead on food, start small-scale businesses at home, or pay school fees for their children.

When families have an increased ability to pay school fees for their children, more children go to school. And more girls go to school. It enables greater access to education. Some studies have shown that children with lighting in their home spend one hour more on average studying, and attend more years of school overall, than those who don't.

We are witnessing these changes directly through our experiences in the Kasese district though a partnership project called The Champion District. The goal? More roofs with solar power. More than 2,000 homes now have solar power on their roof since we started in 2012.

One of these homes belongs to the family of 17-year-old Naomi Nyalwa from the village of Kabukero. She no longer gets sick from doing her homework in the evenings, and her younger sisters are no longer coughing.

Febi Bitareko lives in the neighboring village of Kabaka. She is a mother of seven. She and her husband kept the money they saved from no longer buying kerosene in a homemade savings box. Febi has now opened a small shop in front of their house. She continues to build her earnings, enabling her to expand her shop.

Then there is Masika Gorret, who lives in the nearby fishing village of Kayanja. She is a mother of eight. She earns extra income by charging mobile phones via solar power for those who have yet to gain renewable power for their own homes.

The co-benefits of solar power are immediate and explicit.

Without it, that lack of electricity affects public services - some of which are particularly important to women. The Kanyatsi health center is on the border of Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Morris Baluku works here as a midwife and regularly delivers babies in the middle of the night with the help of a dim light from a cellphone held in his mouth.

The health center then received a donation of a solar panel. The center prioritized the electricity for a refrigerator for its medicines and vaccines. While this improved conditions substantially and helped save lives, women continue to this day to give birth under unsafe circumstances. The risk of complications during and after birth increases for both mother and child in the cases when there is not enough light to conduct a safe delivery or for routine follow-up exams.

Now take climate change on top of all this.

The emissions from kerosene lamps around the world are equal to five times the emissions of the entire country of Norway, where I live. The use of firewood and charcoal, used for heating and cooking, also has broader impacts on deforestation.

1.3 billion people in the world still do not have access to electricity. It is only logical that clean, renewable power is what fills that gap.

Fossil fuels - coal, oil and gas - are unable to power remote locations as quickly and efficiently as renewable energy. It is not sustainable to alleviate poverty with power plants fueled with coal, oil or gas - on this path we will never get the economics to justify themselves, nor will we be able to stay within world's emissions limit in the face of climate change.

The world needs to be building sustainable, renewable electricity urgently where people are living, however remote those areas may be. To make that happen we need solar panels on home roofs, micro-grids in rural areas, and small off-grid power plants that use solar or hydropower to supply entire villages with electricity.

As my colleague Robert Ddamulira of WWF-Uganda explains, "We see Kasese as a reflection of the unacceptable status of a world addicted to fossil-fuels. We are in a situation where less than 10% of this population has access to electricity. A single, simple solar powered light costs just $26. We simply can't afford not to make this transition to clean, accessible power a reality."

The good news is that solutions are out there - and in a big way.

Renewable energy now makes up 22% of power generation around the world. The world built more renewable power last year than for coal, oil, gas and nuclear combined - for the first time in history. The world is changing fast.

As the world looks toward the UN Climate Summit next week in New York, WWF calls on governments and multilateral development banks to increase investments in renewable power and phase-out those in fossil fuels, particularly coal. The energy infrastructure in place by the year 2017 has a major role to play in defining our global path on climate change.

Multilateral development banks play a key role in the world's climate change path.

WWF expects these global financial institutions - whose role is enabling global development - to expand their efforts in accelerating a shift to a low carbon world through investing in renewable power and ending investments in not only coal but also oil and gas.

It is also very much up to governments that fund these multilateral institutions. Governments could make a real difference by supporting an ambitious announcement by multilateral development banks at the UN Climate Summit that enables greater action to move energy investments to act on climate change. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is calling on governments and institutions to make announcements at this summit of tangible action on climate change action. Governments must be aligning their policies and financing with the actions needed on climate change.

At the end of the day, climate change reminds us of what matters.

Climate change threatens everything. It threatens ecosystems. It puts a third of species at risk of extinction. It threatens people - all of us. Yet people are also the solution. How we choose to build energy moving forward will change all of us, wherever we are.

And in the Kasese district of Uganda, the family of Uenice, Scovia and Jofit just last month purchased a solar panel for their home. Our colleagues in Uganda sent us an email sharing the good news.

In the email were two photos. The first was a picture of a new LED light bulb, powered by the solar panel inside their living room.

The second was one of Uenice, Scovia and Jofit - smiling.