Why is Energy an Important Focus in Sustainable Urbanisation?

A blog post from Sustainable Energy Africa’s Mark Borchers:

Urbanisation in Sub-Saharan Africa represents one of the significant global challenges of the day. Urbanisation rates are high and capacity to manage this is often close to non-existent amongst urban governments. The result is usually a steady decline in welfare and inadequate economic development, as well as accelerating environmental degradation. The SAMSET project has chosen to work in the field of sustainable energy transitions as a means of supporting more sustainable urbanization.

Why energy? Energy per se is actually of no interest to anyone, it is the services that energy enables that are important for welfare (cooking, lighting, media, refrigeration etc), for economic activity (motors, electronics, process heat, communications etc), and for mobility (fuel for cars, taxis, trains), amongst others. Without energy, just about everything stops pretty much immediately. It is the life blood of urban areas. While greenhouse gas mitigation is unlikely to be a big motivator for change in most African countries into the medium term, welfare, resource efficiency and environmental degradation are acknowledged as being critically important factors in urban sustainability. Energy has an important role in all of these. Access to adequate and modern energy by the poor is important for household welfare, especially for the poor who often spend a disproportionate amount of time and money in meeting energy needs. Electricity access can support nutrition through access to refrigeration, and education through improved lighting. Energy efficiency is becoming increasingly important for economic health as costs rise and international pressures on global warming emissions increase. Many African countries are having to digest annual electricity price increases of between 20 and 80%! Energy is also often linked to local environmental degradation, for example from charcoal production.

Promoting welfare, resource efficiency and environmental sustainability through their energy dimensions is at the heart of SAMSET, however this demands that we look at just about every aspect of urban development. For example a more efficient future demands that buildings are designed differently – every inefficient ‘glass clad’ office block monstrosity we erect today commits us to an inefficient, expensive future for decades to come. Efficiency requires the use of different technologies, and that urban layout minimizes the need for extensive infrastructure to reduce costs and facilitate access, as well as to facilitate public transport in some form and reduce travel needs. There are many other approaches to consider as well, such as around awareness, capacity, standards and institutional frameworks, to name a few. But of course SAMSET cannot tackle everything, and one of our challenges in the next year is to decide where the most appropriate focus areas are in each partner country – where we can achieve most ‘bang for buck’.

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