Last Thursday and Friday I attended the Energy Justice Conference at the University of Colorado in Boulder. It was organized by Dr. Lakshman Guruswamy, Director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Security at the School of Law. More than forty speakers representing multiple disciplines took us through the challenges facing the energy oppressed poor (the one third of the world’s population that has fire as its only energy source) and the consequences of their lack of options. It was more than eye opening. It was at once both distressing given the dire situation of so many billions of people and hopeful to realize that many realize their plight and are working diligently to ease their circumstances.
The challenges, however, are enormous and the solutions are not simple. People who rely on fire to cook their foods, heat and/or illuminate their homes suffer extreme indoor air pollution. The pollution comes from the production of black soot and other toxic substances resulting from incomplete combustion of their fuel source, usually wood, dung, or charcoal. The indoor air pollution especially compromises the health of the women who cook and the children carried on their backs or kept close. Because the fires often sit on the floor of the homes, many in the home suffer severe burns. And the physical labor of the women and young girls who carry the fuel, often across miles daily or every other day, is considerable. The burden of these loads often leads to injury and almost invariably discomfort.
The environmental impacts from those who use fire are serious as well. There is the obvious problem of wood being stripped from the ecosystems causing (often severe) erosion and degradation of the soil. And the production of black soot is almost as serious a threat to the Earth’s atmosphere as the excess of carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuels, though it receives considerably less attention among the climate change monitors. Black soot has among its other threats the problem of settling on ice packs and speeding the melting of glaciers.
There is no grid of electrical services into which the energy oppressed poor can plug. It seems they are condemned to live under increasingly difficult circumstances (drought, floods, food shortages, war) caused by the other two thirds of the world’s population. They, whose resources are most fragile are least able to bear the burden of extremes, are the first to feel the negative impacts. No alternatives seem to exist. Or do they?