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By the year 2020, more than half of the developing world population is expected to live in cities. With increased urban populations and growing municipal and industrial sectors serving it, the amount of energy use will grow steadily. Transport is one of the fastest-growing sectors of energy use, with road transport being the major sub-sector.

Cities play a vital role in development. In our rapidly urbanising world, they have become the prime creators of growth, centres of productivity, and important centres for social progress at every level. Increasingly cities absorb population growth, offering significant economies of scale in the provision of jobs, housing and services. Urban areas invariably are centres of national economic development.

Modern cities require vast amounts of resources both for their urban inhabitants and for the economic activities concentrated there and are therefore inherently unsustainable. But governance and human activities within cities eventually determine whether the city is going to be sustainable or not. The least restrictive interpretation of a sustainable community would be one that is both resource efficient and relied only on products of sustainable production.

The general importance of energy for human development is unmistakable, although we often take its functions for granted. What is even less obvious to many of us, however, is how closely energy production and use are connected with major issues of concern such as economic development and job creation, poverty, gender inequality, food security, and the environment. In fact, the efficient production and use of energy could provide important means to intervene positively in these vital areas of human concern.

A major obstacle to meeting this goal, however, lies in the way energy is generally perceived within the framework of overall socio-economic development. Presently, energy consumption, rather than the level of energy services, is seen as the indicator of development. By taking energy consumption as the measure of development, energy planners are often simply concerned with increasing fuel and electricity supplies based on existing patterns of energy use, rather than with identifying and sustaining the level of energy services that would be required to satisfy basic human needs. For while energy itself is not a basic human need, it is an essential input for the fulfilment of all basic needs. From the standpoint of sustainable human development, therefore, what is urgently needed is a reorientation of ideas about energy to focus on the manner in which it is presently utilised, its potential for improving people’s quality of life, and ways to increase access to its services for the poor.

Energy is central to the satisfaction of basic nutrition and health needs, and energy services such as cooking, lighting and heating constitute a sizeable share of total household expenditure (between a 1/4 and a 1/3) in developing countries. In general, people in poverty expend more time and effort (standing in queues and/or gathering wood) to obtain energy services that tend to be of lower quality (polluting, hazardous and health adverse such as paraffin) than the energy services available to the rich.

Simply increasing the supply of energy (eg through grid connections) will not better the situation or contribute to poverty alleviation as it is the level of services (such as heating water) that needs to be improved. Water could be heated free of charge by the sun, through a solar water heater, a much better option for a poor household. From the international to local imperatives it is quite clear that poverty and sustainability are priority issues and that the city has a lot to gain from a sustainable energy development path.

Municipalities and energy

Local authorities are not only big energy users and significant distributors of electricity (Figure 1) but are also ideally placed to influence the energy use of others, as they are the primary planners and service providers in the city.

There are many social, economic and environmental benefits for local authorities if they encourage sustainable energy practices in their city and if they lead by example. Energy costs draw precious budgetary resources from other important municipal functions such as education, public transportation, and health care.

A municipalities energy bill is largely dependent on how the local authority behaves – it is a variable cost that can be controlled by cutting down on wasteful energy consumption. The benefits of lower energy consumption are clear. Using less energy means, lower financial energy costs and improved competitiveness. Local Authorities that manage their energy consumption effectively are also less vulnerable when energy prices rise. Using less energy also means reduced local pollutants and globally devastating carbon dioxide emissions. Whatever the size or type of a local authority, everyone stands to gain from being more energy efficient. Energy efficiency delivers not only cost savings in the short-term but is important for the longer term financial viability of a local authority taking into account factors such as reputation, risk management, carbon management and environmental responsibility.

If sustainable energy objectives are included in local authority functions a local authority will save energy and save money while delivering a service that improves local residents quality of life and maintains global environmental integrity.

Every urban setting is different - and every city must identify and prioritise its own problems in its own way. Prevailing notions about energy are deeply supply-biased and growth-oriented, so that wide-ranging policy innovation is, in fact, needed in order to realise the objective of using energy as an instrument of sustainable human development. Moreover, the transition to sustainable energy is necessarily affected by numerous institutional impediments and shaped by current trends sweeping the world. The latter include globalisation, marketisation, popular participation in decision-making, the changing roles of government, restructuring (and corporatisation) of energy utilities, and the changing magnitude and mix of sources of external funding.

A local energy plan is NOT another conventional plan; it is a dynamic planning framework; it is NOT comprehensive, but strategically focused on critical priority issues for which resources can therefore be mobilised. The local government environment is changing and there are opportunities for councils to extend their important leadership role, to lead by example.

A sustainable energy path to development is not only necessary to ensure the future survival of humanity, but is also a vital aspect of any agenda to eradicate existing poverty.