Of all the things that have gone viral this year, there is 1 in particular that stood out for me. A Swedish professor, Hans Rosling, produced a survey that tests our assumptions about the progress of the developing world. It was reported on by the BBC a few weeks back, and Rosling’s TED talk has been viewed more than 6 million times.
Many people I spoke to said how surprised they were by some of the answers – like the fact that the number of children in the world will be the same in 2100 as in 2000, or that average life expectancy globally has reached 70.
I’ve been an international development minister for a little over a year now, but some facts and figures still teach me something new.
If you asked me a week ago about the biggest causes of death in the world, I would certainly have thought of malaria, as well as diarrhoea and malnutrition. Globally, heart disease, stroke and cancer are surely up there.
But what I hadn’t realised was the deadliness of smoke inhalation from cooking and heating in homes around the world. At least 2 million people die prematurely due to household air pollution every year, while a recent estimate has put the figure as high as 4 million. Even the lower figure is around 3 times the number of people who die from malaria. And 44% of these deaths are among children.
I learnt just how important this issue is during a visit to New York last week to represent the UK on the advisory board of the Sustainable Energy for All (SE4ALL) initiative, chaired by the UN Secretary General and World Bank President.
SE4ALL gathers the UN, governments, the multilateral development banks, the private sector and non-governmental organisations to try and make progress towards universal access to cleaner and more efficient energy by 2030.
This is a huge task, but an essential one. Without access to energy, medicines cannot be safely stored, children cannot study after dark, and businesses cannot prosper.
And if you are a woman or a girl, it is even more essential to have access to clean, affordable energy. Currently, women in Africa can spend 4 hours per day collecting firewood, time that could be better spent learning or working. Over 90% of rapes of women in transitional settlements occur while women are collecting firewood. And women make up 60% of adult deaths from indoor air pollution.
Right now, 1.3 billion people lack access to electricity – around one sixth of the world’s population. This can be because they live in remote areas, because there is no national grid, or simply because they cannot afford it. Burkina Faso, for example, has the most expensive electricity in the world – yet it is 183rd out of 187 in the Human Development Index.
So that is why, last week, I represented the UK government on the SE4ALL advisory board. And that is why I launched a personal campaign focused on improving the lives of girls and women through access to clean energy. You can see my speech to launch the campaign here (at 36:30).
As part of this campaign, I have joined the leadership council of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an extraordinary organisation with the objective of ensuring 100 million clean cookstoves are in use amongst the poor by 2020. You can hear more about the work of the Alliance from its chair, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, here.
To kick off the campaign I also announced UK support of £7 million to learn more about how to achieve universal access to clean cooking by 2030, and £4.5 million for research through the Gender and Sustainable Energy Network – ENERGIA – to better understand how we can improve women’s skills, economic opportunities, health and safety through access to energy.
With the leadership of such a powerful range of people – from the Secretary General of the UN, Ban Ki-moon, to politicians such as Hillary Clinton, from business leaders such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance CEO Michael Liebreich to celebrities such as Julia Roberts – we have a chance to change the world. We can make it cleaner, brighter and safer.
We need to make clean energy access the next thing to go viral. And together, perhaps, we can remove one of those facts and figures that still have the power to shock and surprise.