Discover how a people-centric energy transition facilitates positive social impacts, including greater job inclusivity, reduced poverty, and better health.

The world is undergoing a global energy transition. Unfortunately, while the transition towards more sustainable sources is accelerating worldwide, not all countries are progressing in harmony.

Only 18% of countries in the world have balanced the imperatives of the Energy Trilemma

According to the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Energy Transition Index 2023, only 18% of countries globally have balanced the imperatives of the energy trilemma: security, affordability, and sustainability. In the rush to prioritise security and sustainability, equity has, more often than not, been left behind. 

This reality raises a concerning question: are our global energy and technology strategies overlooking the people and communities they ultimately serve? Such statistics underscore that there is an urgent need for an approach that is more people-centric in its energy transition. Without this balance, WEF reports that those without it will have to navigate an unstable energy landscape and face risks related to energy security, widening socio-economic inequalities, and the consequences of climate change. 

A people-centric energy transition is an approach that puts people and communities at the heart of decision-making. It recognises that the transition to clean energy is not just about technology, but also about social justice, equity, and economic development. When a people-centric approach is in place, a number of social impacts can arise. Here are a few of the most prominent benefits we have seen across the region:

Equitable access to clean energy 

A people-centric approach is known to democratise energy access by ensuring that clean energy is within reach for everyone, especially underserved communities. This includes engaging communities in energy decisions and ensuring they have access to consistent, affordable energy, while having a decisive voice in their energy futures. 

In rural locations, community-driven solutions in the form of microgrids, and energy cooperatives are important to facilitate decision-making and hands-on involvement. This autonomy buffers communities against unforeseen energy interruptions and enriches their daily lives by ensuring steady electricity for essentials such as light, heat, education, and communication. 

Cambodia offers a prime example of how decentralised solar mini grids can transform a community. In 2000, only about 7% of the country’s rural locations had electricity. Today, close to 100% of these places are electrified, positively affecting over 13,700 villages. With the use of mini grids, streets are lit at night, enhancing safety and mobility for women and girls. Villagers now have consistent access to clean water and better sanitation. Additionally, with less dependence on fire wood, women and girls have more time for education and livelihood development, and get to enjoy a healthier environment with reduced indoor air pollution.

Greater job inclusivity

The transition towards cleaner energy also brings with it increased job opportunities across the spectrum—from skilled tasks in solar and wind farm construction and maintenance to more foundational roles. 

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that by 2050, the renewable energy industry will employ up to 40 million people globally. In Southeast Asia, this number is expected to be 6 million new jobs in the decade following the Paris 1.5°C agreement, and another 1.2 million by 2050. What is striking about this increase in green jobs is how it facilitates greater job inclusivity. Already, the renewable energy sector boasts a 32% female workforce, which is a notable leap from the 22% average in the broader energy industry. 

Furthermore, a people-centric transition will increase opportunities for youth, minorities, and marginalised communities in the Global South. This is evident in Sarawak’s energy initiative in Malaysia. The Sarawak Alternative Rural Electrification Scheme (SARES) is a state-owned initiative that hires local villagers to install solar panels for surrounding communities. Many of these locals have only studied until secondary school and are tasked with ferrying materials, handling basic cabling tasks, and learning on-the-job until they are skilled enough to become permanent employees certified in solar system installation. This aligns with IRENA’s anticipation that in a 1.5°C Paris-compliant scenario, only half of the jobs created by 2050 will require a primary or lower secondary education. 

As such, it is clear that a just energy transition can target a larger social segment, creating opportunities for diverse skill sets and education levels while fostering greater social inclusivity. It further empowers local workforces to play an active role in the decarbonisation of the economy, and acknowledges the need for capacity building, training, and cooperation to address social issues such as gender equity and support for vulnerable groups.

Improved human health and environmental wellbeing 

Pollution has severe impacts on human life. In 2019, it led to a staggering nine million premature deaths. Air pollution was the fourth primary cause of  deaths, accounting for 6.7 million cases while water pollution caused 1.4 million deaths. 

To tackle these environmental hazards, a people-centric transition is needed to facilitate a shift towards sustainable resource use with positive impacts on human wellbeing. Moving away from heavy polluters such as coal, especially in high-risk areas, can substantially improve air quality and reduce health hazards linked to burning fossil fuels. Ensuring our energy production and consumption processes limit pollution also means cleaner water, protected ecosystems, and a healthier populace. 

The advantages of such a transition are clear in Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, where the city is embarking on a large-scale housing development known as the Green Affordable Housing Project. This initiative aims to transition residents from traditional yurt settlements, which are climate-vulnerable and major sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and air pollution due to coal stoves, to sustainable houses. The 10,000 housing units being built will be fitted with rooftop solar panels, enhanced insulation, and improved connectivity to the central energy grid, water, and sanitation services. With proper insulation and central grid supply, heating demand will drop and energy efficiency will improve; pollution from coal stoves will also be alleviated. For the residents, this means fewer health risks from pollution and a substantial reduction in respiratory illnesses due to improved air quality. 

Poverty alleviation

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), over 600 million people in Asia and the Pacific are without electricity, and over 1.8 billion still use wood and charcoal to heat and cook. 

With a people-centric energy transition, it is possible to lift people out of poverty, particularly in regions with high levels of energy poverty such as Asia Pacific. Better energy access can stimulate economic growth, improve educational and health services, and encourage entrepreneurship. Furthermore, access to clean and affordable energy curtails dependency on less efficient and detrimental energy practices, paving the way for a healthier region. 

Thus, placing humans at the heart of our energy transition strategies can lead to equitable energy distribution, enhanced access to cleaner energy sources, better public and environmental health, more inclusive job opportunities, and reduced poverty. For Asia and the Pacific, such an approach is crucial to address justice and fairness while ensuring all stakeholders, from national bodies to everyday citizens, are in support of the energy strategies we implement. This way, local communities do not bear the brunt of harmful practices. Rather, we can pave the way for a greener, more inclusive future for the region that ensures benefits are equitably shared and no one is left behind.

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