THE BLOG
23/09/2015 08:34 BST | Updated 22/09/2016 06:12 BST

Seven Is a Magic Number

This time next week UN member states will have formally adopted a new sustainable development agenda with 17 global goals that aim to end poverty, promote prosperity and people's well-being while protecting the environment by 2030.

It feels wrong to have a favourite goal but number seven is one that is very close to our hearts at Ashden: to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.

In a world in which around 1.5 billion people still lack access to electricity, and some three billion - more than a third of the world's population - cook on smoky inefficient stoves and fires, access to affordable and clean sustainable energy for all is a vital goal, especially as it cuts across so many of the other global goals.

Such stoves and fires for cooking cause terrible indoor air pollution which is responsible for 4.3 million premature deaths every year according to the World Health Organisation. That's more than double the number of people who die from malaria and HIV combined. Clean affordable cookstoves are an easy and available solution to this horrifying health risk, while solar power can bring light and electricity to health centres and power refrigerators for the safe keeping of vaccines. Clearly, clean modern energy is essential for improving health - goal three.

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BURN Manufacturing is helping improve the lives of women and girls in East Africa with its efficient charcoal-burning Jikokoa™ stove and employment opportunities. Credit: BURN Manufacturing

Access to clean energy can also enable schools across rural Africa and Asia to have computers and modern communications for the first time; it can bring light to homes so that children can study after dark. This can help to achieve goal four: inclusive and equitable quality education for all.

Modern clean energy can be used to support local businesses, bringing new prosperity and livelihoods to off-grid communities. It can mean that a farmer can irrigate his fields, doubling or tripling the size of his crop and income which in turn leads to goal eight: full and productive employment and decent work for all.

With the fifth goal, which focuses on gender equality, energy is just as important. Across the developing world, women and girls typically bear the brunt of domestic tasks, with lack of access to clean energy increasing the burden. Without electricity, domestic chores like washing clothes and preparing food can dominate women's lives. Having to cook on inefficient stoves and open fires means more time spent cooking and collecting firewood. Access to energy frees up valuable time that can be spent studying or earning an income.

If everybody gets behind the new goals then we really can be the first generation to end extreme poverty. It's not just in developing countries that the effect of the goals will be felt if they're met. There's a role for affordable sustainable energy to play in tackling fuel poverty in the UK as well as creating new businesses and infrastructure that can create jobs and economic growth. Modern sustainable energy can reach the poorest and most marginalised and transform their lives, as well as have a huge positive impact on economic growth and industry, on well-being, on climate action.

Now is absolutely the time to be embracing clean renewable energy sources. Solar power has never been cheaper and in many places, such as India and Africa, it is at grid parity - the same cost as the power from the fossil fuel driven electric grid. Similarly the cost of batteries, used in energy storage systems, has steadily decreased. At a household level, solar lanterns retailing for as little as US$7 each, low cost solar home systems or renewably powered mini and micro-grids are all helping many millions of off-grid homes across the developing world access electricity for the first time.

We have the technology, and Ashden Award winners are demonstrating that we also have the know-how to reach those in most need of energy. Take SteamaCo, the winner of this year's International Gold Award, who have helped rural communities in Kenya to benefit from clean light and power for the first time thanks to renewable energy micro-grids. The micro-grids use a simple cloud-based remote metering and payments system that monitors energy use, lets people pay for power using their mobile phones, and quickly troubleshoots any problems. An incredible innovation in a country where some 80% of citizens lack access to mains electricity.

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A barber can stay open for longer and no longer suffers from intermittent power cuts now that he has solar power. Credit: SteamaCo

However, in order to ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all we need to see some changes. We need strong political will at country level, and policy and regulatory frameworks that favour renewable energy and increases energy access. We need strong working partnerships - between the public and private sector, with the latter taking on an increasingly important role - and small and medium sized clean energy enterprises need to be able to access the appropriate finance and investments to enable them to scale up and reach many more millions.

A report that we published with Christian Aid found that it is enormously difficult for small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) to access finance in their early growth stage. Working capital and grants focused on growth, new programmes and innovation need to be made accessible to them as they're at the vanguard of getting energy access to those who need it the most.

As we head towards COP21, the critical climate negotiations taking place in Paris in December, anyone invested in the Global Goals should think seriously about having the word SUSTAINABLE emblazoned on our foreheads. It should be front, back and centre of mind at all times because without the S factor we risk losing advances that have been fought for and undoing gains that have been won.

Increasing access to sustainable energy is both the biggest challenge and the greatest opportunity for reducing poverty in developing countries and addressing climate change. As 193 UN member states gather to formally adopt the new goals, it's time for all of us to get to work!

Applications for the 2016 Ashden Awards recognising sustainable energy trailblazers around the world are now open, deadline 3 November 2015.