Energy: a global challenge
“Climate change is a subtle form of human rights violation. There is no direct persecution or threat, but combustion of fossil fuels in industrialised nations has jeopardised the ability of certain societies to maintain their traditional practices, diminishing their cultural identity and their connection with their natural environment.”
Energy poses one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. By 2030, the world's energy needs are expected to be 50 per cent greater than today. At the same time, scientists are calling for massive and immediate reductions in the greenhouse gas emissions that come from our use of energy and are the cause of climate change. These two conflicting facts create a huge global challenge.
So what is an energy footprint?
Put simply, this is the environmental, economic and social impact that results from the use of energy. Also known as a carbon footprint, which measures the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) given off when fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas are burned.
Carbon dioxide is the main greenhouse gas responsible for climate change, considered by many scientists to be the greatest environmental challenge of our time.
Walking towards climate chaos
Our heavy reliance on fossil fuels for energy is changing the planet’s climate. It is making it warmer because the burning of fossil fuels generates carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that forms a kind of blanket around the earth. The thicker the blanket, the more of the sun’s heat is trapped inside the earth’s atmosphere.
Climate change is considered by many scientists to be the most serious threat facing people and the environment on which we all depend. The effects of climate change include rising sea levels, more severe storms and floods, longer droughts and the spread of tropical diseases. Climate change could also create up to 200 million climate refugees by 2050, driven from their homes due to floods, drought or water and food shortages.
The poorer you are the less you have contributed to the problem of climate change, yet the more you are likely to suffer. The world’s poorest people have the lowest energy or carbon footprint – they use the least energy and so create the least greenhouse gases – but are likely to suffer the most.
Scientists predict that in Africa between 75 and 250 million people may experience serious water shortages due to climate change. Food crop yields may decline by as much as a half.
Meanwhile, those who are most to blame for climate change – people in the countries of the rich north – continue to live in relative luxury.
Energy footprint: how it measures up
1.6 billion people in the world, mostly in rural areas, have no access to electricity
One in three people in the world still rely on traditional fuels such as wood and dung to meet their daily heating and cooking needs.
The 100 countries most at risk from the impacts of climate change only release 3% of global carbon dioxide combined.
The World Health Organisation believes global warming is already responsible for more than 160,000 deaths a year due to increases in malaria and malnutrition.
The average American is responsible for 125 times more greenhouse gas emissions than the average African.
Fifty years ago, people used 11 million barrels of oil a day. Today, 75 million barrels are used daily.
Sweden has announced that it intends to be ‘oil-free’ by 2020.
Climate change and human rights
There is a clear link between climate change and human rights. The right to life itself can be denied in the immediate aftermath of an extreme weather event such as a hurricane. More extreme storms are predicted as a result of climate change.
People’s right to food may also be affected. Food production is likely to decline because of increased temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns, soil erosion, desertification and rising sea levels which will make coastal land unusable for growing crops.
As the earth gets warmer, heat waves and water shortages will make it difficult to access safe drinking water and sanitation. The result could be increased conflicts between countries over limited water.
Climate change will have many impacts on the right to health. It will, for example, provide a better climate for malaria carrying mosquitoes.
Many of the rights enshrined under the Convention on the Rights of the Child are threatened by lack of energy (see Did you know box? on the relationship between access to electricity and poverty below). Likewise climate change could undermine many rights. In particular Article 24 relating to the right to clean water, nutritious food and a clean environment could be threatened by global warming.
For further information on the Convention on the Rights of the Child follow this link: http://www.getreadyforchange.org.uk/childrens_rights
Did you know?
There is a direct relationship between not having access to electricity and living in poverty? Here are some examples:
Teachers are reluctant to go and work in areas without electricity so children don’t get educated.
Many children living in areas without energy, especially girls, do not attend school because they have to work for the family carrying wood and water.
Likewise, many women spend much time collecting fire wood and water when they could be carrying out productive activities which could earn them money.
There are threats to health. For example, water can’t easily be boiled to make it safe to drink and lung disease can be caused by breathing in smoke from traditional fuels such as wood and dung.
Lack of electricity in health clinics can prevent people being properly treated; doctors and nurses need electricity for lighting, refrigeration, and sterilisation in order to deliver effective health services.
Radios and television – powered by electricity – can spread important public health information to combat deadly diseases.
Can you think of any other examples?
See http://www.iea.org/textbase/nppdf/free/2002/energy_poverty.pdf a report from the International Energy Agency for some ideas