Around two billion of the world's population are suffering adverse health effects through lack of access to clean energy, and are exposed to high levels of indoor air pollutants from the inefficient burning of natural biomass fuels.
In this first of six papers in The Lancet's Series on Energy and Health, titled "Effects and Injustices", Dr Paul Wilkinson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, UK, and colleagues say: "The exploitation of fossil fuels is integral to modern living and has been a key element of the rapid technological, social, and cultural changes of the past 250 years. Although such changes have brought undeniable benefits, this exploitation has contributed to a burden of illness through pollution of local and regional environments, and is the dominant cause of climate change." The paper adds that although climate change risks affect populations throughout the world, they fall most heavily on the poor, particularly in developing countries, adding to the burden from lack of clean fuels.
The paper demonstrates how stark inequalities in access to energy services causes ill-health (causing for example around 1.6 million premature deaths worldwide from household fuels annually, and 0.8 million from air pollution in cities) and contributes to poverty. Improving access links closely with all eight Millennium Development Goals which have been adopted by most countries to guide development policy. The richest populations use up to 20 times more energy per head than those from the poorest countries . The challenge is to provide energy for the further development of the world's poor whilst reducing emissions that cause ill-health and add to climate change.
The authors conclude: "Despite formidable challenges ahead, a shift towards an equitable distribution of energy based increasingly on renewable resources has the potential for major health dividends. Progress along that path is measurable."