Here’s why 1.2 billion people still don’t have access to electricity

May 29, 2013

The U.N. has set a big, ambitious goal of making sure everyone in the world has access to electricity by 2030. And how's that going? Not so well.

Not as easy as it looks. (AP)

That's one upshot of a new progress report coordinated by the International Energy Agency and the World Bank, which notes that 1.2 billion people around the world are still stuck in the dark. And it's unlikely that this number will shrink down to zero in the next two decades, the report notes, without a lot more money and effort.

The report begins by noting that, yes, there have been some impressive gains over the past two decades — some 1.7 billion people have acquired access to electricity since 1990, while 1.6 billion have gained access to cleaner cooking fuels. Here's what that looks like in chart form, courtesy of the Economist:

But here's the catch: The rate of growth in electrification has still been slower than population growth. (Access to electricity grew at about 1.2 percent per year between 1990 and 2010, while the global population grew at 1.3 percent per year.) Despite huge gains in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, lack of access is still a huge issue on both continents.

As a result, the IEA and World Bank don't think the United Nations will be able to meet its goal by 2030 —  not without a much bigger push. "With regard to universal access," the report notes, "business as usual would leave 12 percent and 31 percent of the world’s population in 2030 without electricity and modern cooking solutions, respectively."

It gets even more complicated: The U.N. doesn't just want to bring electricity to developing countries. It's also trying to tackle climate change at the same time — and prevent global temperatures from rising more than 2°C. To satisfy both goals, nations around the world would also need to improve their energy efficiency and bolster the amount of clean energy they use.

Doing all of that, the IEA and World Bank note, will cost a fair bit more than the world is currently spending: "The investments required to achieve the three objectives are tentatively estimated to be at least $600–800 billion per year over and above existing levels, entailing a doubling or tripling of financial flows over current levels."

Only about one-fifth of that price tag is for expanding energy access to poorer countries — the rest is for cleaning up the energy supply. Progress on the latter has also been slow. The report notes that the world's share of renewable energy has ticked up only slightly since 1990, from 16.6 percent to 18 percent in 2010.

Related: Can the world fight climate change and energy poverty at the same time?

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