Addressing Energy Poverty

July 28, 2015

Fossil fuel pollution is killing people in poor communities

  • Fossil fuels make it hard to breathe, particularly for the poor who live in cities and neighborhoods with the worst air pollution. There are over 600,000 pre-mature deaths each year in India alone due to air pollution driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Air pollution from cars, factories and power plants is a major cause of asthma.
  • Air pollution is the single biggest environmental health risk. According to the World Health Organization, air pollution killed about 7 million people worldwide in 2012 – one in eight global deaths.
  • The poor pay the heaviest price of fossil-fuel pollution. Childhood asthma has dramatically increased in inner cities, and asthma disproportionately strikes the poor, who are “at least 50 percent more likely to have the disease than those not living in poverty.”
  • Reducing dependence on coal improves health.  For example, the U.S. Clean Power Plan (supported by the American Lung Association) would prevent up to 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 asthma attacks in children, 3,300 heart attacks, 2,800 hospital admissions and 490,000 missed days of school and work every year.

Clean energy is more reliable and accessible for the poor

  • The poorest are often located in remote locations, areas that benefit the most from renewables because renewable energy doesn’t demand the huge power plants and heavy network of transmission lines required by fossil fuel power. 84% of those living without energy access throughout Africa and India live in rural and remote areas — areas far from power plants or transmission lines. Energy generated by fossil fuels has no way of reaching people without a massive energy grid, and building that grid infrastructure is very expensive and can be exceedingly challenging on difficult terrain. For example, the World Bank estimated that extending the grid in Mali would cost up to $19,070/km. Consequently, in many cases, mini-grids or off-grid power coming from renewable sources are the best option for remote poor communities.
  • Renewables allow developing countries to leapfrog. Bypassing the creation of a cost-intensive, inefficient grid in developing countries and moving straight to renewables is analogous to skipping the building of landlines in developing countries and moving straight to the more advanced technology of cell phones.
  • Installation is quick. Whereas it typically takes years to build fossil fuel plants, a solar panel can be installed on a roof in one day and a whole solar plant built in as little as three months.
  • Renewables are more reliable. Wind and solar need less backup generation than fossil fuels or nuclear sources. This is because changes in wind and solar generation tend to be gradual and predictable, unlike fossil fuel generation and nuclear sources, which can have large, abrupt and unpredictable changes in electricity output.

Clean energy is better for developing countries

  • Clean energy keeps capital in the community. Investing in distributed renewables creates local jobs and brings economic stimulus to developing countries. Renewable energy also allows developing countries to avoid paying the exorbitant cost of imported fossil fuels.
  • Wind and solar energy sources can produce power on site, unlike most large-scale fossil fuel plants.
  • Small villages, neighborhoods and even households can afford small renewable installations, but large-scale fossil fuel plants require significant capital costs.

Fossil fuels are more expensive than clean energy 

  • Governments around the world spend $3 trillion subsidizing fossil fuels every year, equivalent to $10 million a minute and greater than the health expenditures of all global governments combined, the International Monetary Fund finds. According to the IMF analysis, if these subsidies were ended, global carbon emissions would fall by 20 percent and 1.6 million people would be saved each year from air pollution-related deaths.
  • Fossil fuels depend on massive government subsidies to bring the price down for consumers. Fossil fuels are so expensive in developing countries that the subsidies for fossil fuel consumers in those countries alone are estimated at $544 billion. According to the World Bank, fossil fuel subsidies cost developing countries an average of 5% of their GDP.
  • Taxpayers subsidize fossil fuels, estimated at $37 billion annually, including $21 billion in production and exploration subsidies.
  • Clean energy costs are more stable, avoiding bust-and-boom cycles. Prices for fossil fuels are unpredictable as coal and gas prices often spike suddenly. Moving to renewable energy helps low-income families avoid the energy price spikes that really hurt the budgets of fixed-income households, households that spend a much higher percentage of their income on energy costs.
  • Clean energy production typically requires higher investment upfront (which is why access to financing and technology is so important for developing countries), but since there are no fuel costs with clean energy, the overall return is greater.
  • Clean energy will only continue to get cheaper as technology gets better. Fossil fuels will get more expensive as reserves are depleted.

Clean energy is cost-competitive

Energy companies are putting out slick and deceptive ads to try to say coal is good for energy poverty.  For example, see

The Advanced Energy for Life website where Jing plays a starring role was launched in February 2104. Peabody says it has three objectives: combatting the crisis of global energy poverty, increasing access to low-cost electricity, and reducing emissions using today’s advanced ‘clean coal’ technologies.  The Advanced Energy for Life campaign was crafted by Burson Marsteller, a public relations firm that worked with the Nigerian government and Argentina junta when they were accused of massacres and disappearances, and helped the nuclear, chemical and energy companies after environmental disasters. It was a ringer for a United Nations initiative, Sustainable Energy for All, launched by Ban Ki-moon in 2011, aimed at fighting poverty by expanding access to clean energy.  The Advanced Energy for Life website relies heavily on material from coal industry lobby groups and small ultra-conservative think tanks that deny the existence of climate change, such as the Heartland Institute.

Peabody Coal and the Heartland’s campaign are gaining traction.  Last year, Vic Svec, Peabody’s senior vice-president for global investor and corporate relations, told the Guardian that “Our view is that the worst human and environmental crisis is not climate change,” but energy poverty.  Svec said in an email this month. “We’ve continued to have good success with the campaign,” he told the Guardian. “A review last year in the months following our campaign launch in early 2014 showed that online discussion regarding energy poverty increased some 50% while clean coal discussion increased approximately 40%. We also saw a substantial increase in other major political and business leaders discussing the vital issue of energy poverty.”  One of those figures was Bill Gates, who posted two videos on energy poverty by the climate contrarian Bjorn Lomborg on his Gates Notes blog in June last year.  But for all the stated concern about poverty in developing countries, Peabody, unlike Gates or indeed several other big coal companies, has no record of funding programmes to reduce energy poverty. “Global energy poverty requires a structural solution brought about by the wise choice of fuels and the wise choice of policies,” Svec said in an email. “The entire mission of Peabody and our activities is driven around increasing access to reliable, low-cost energy.”

And Peabody has admitted the true measure of success of its Advanced Energy for Life campaign will not be measured in developing countries, but by the degree to which it has managed to lead the attention away from coal as a cause of climate change.

“We will achieve the highest level of success if we are able to change the global conversation to focus on energy poverty as the world’s number one human and environmental crisis.” Beth Sutton, Peabody’s vice-president for global advocacy communications said.

Personal stories such as Jing’s are critical to changing those conversations.  Jing (based in St. Louis at Monsanto) told the Guardian that her appearance in the video was based on personal experience and had nothing to do with her professional position. She was not paid or compensated by Peabody.  She has prior experience as the face of industry campaigns. In 2006, she was the “face of diversity” for General Motors, her previous employer.

Meanwhile, Peabody has promoted their main lobbyist, Fred Palmer, Peabody’s main lobbyist, to senior vice-president for global relations.  As The Guardian reported, Palmer is deeply connected to the world of climate denial. The public face of Peabody’s opposition to Barack Obama’s climate change plan, Palmer had a record of attacking mainstream climate science that stretches back more than 20 years, well before he joined Peabody in 2001.  In July last year he delivered the official Peabody response to new Environmental Protection Agency rules, opposing limits on carbon pollution to deal with what he dismissed as “climate theory”.  In the early 1990s, Palmer, then the lobbyist for the Western Fuels Association, a consortium of coal industry groups, founded the Greening Earth Society, one of the first industry front groups to promote misinformation about climate change.  The Greening Earth Society actively promoted the – false – notion that climate change was actually a net positive, claiming that rising temperatures and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide would help plants grow.

Palmer was also deeply involved in the campaign by the Information Council on the Environment (Ice), launched before the 1992 environmental conference, to persuade the public that climate change was not a threat. Some of the messages tested by Ice included: “Who told you the Earth was warming … Chicken Little”, according to Naomi Oreskes in the book Merchants of Doubt.

The Greening Earth Society is now defunct but Palmer continued to air his doubts about the existence and potential dangers of climate change. In 2009, Palmer went so far as to say that rising carbon dioxide emissions are good for the planet – part of doing “God’s work”.  “Every time you turn your car on and you burn fossil fuels and you put C02 in the air you are doing the work of the lord,” Palmer told an industry gathering.

Other articles:

World Bank rejects energy industry notion that coal can cure poverty

Could carbon pricing still play a role in Paris climate talks?

How carbon reporting can unlock multi-million dollar benefits