Back in 2015 the United Nations agreed a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, with the aim of ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all. Each goal had specific targets to be reached within the next 15 years, such as achieving universal electrification by 2030. But how feasible are these goals?

To answer this question, Narasimha Rao and Shonali Pachauri, both at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, analysed historical progress in energy access and living standards. Using various indicators of living standards gathered by the World Bank and United Nations Organizations, they examined the period 1990 to 2010 for countries in four developing regions: East Asia and Pacific, Latin America and Caribbean, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa. In each case they studied differences in access to electricity, clean cooking, and improved water sources and sanitation facilities, and investigated the correlation with income growth.

Rao and Pachauri found that in all cases access to clean cooking fuels and improved sanitation lag behind access to clean water and electricity by a significant margin. What’s more, they showed that the gap is largest in the poorest countries and for poor people in middle-income countries, and is correlated to health risks faced disproportionately by women.

"We do not explore why this gap exists, but one can speculate that as electrification is also an important input for productivity increases and economic growth, this may be one reason it has received greater policy focus and attention," said Pachauri, whose findings are published in Environmental Research Letters (ERL).

When it comes to electrification, the team showed that some countries have achieved far faster coverage than others. Vietnam and Thailand have achieved astonishingly fast progress relative to their income increase. Most countries that embarked on electrification prior to 1970 took from 19 to 27 years to increase access from 20% of their population to 80%, and an additional 20 to 40 years to reach universal access. Vietnam and Thailand, which made a push on electrification after 1970, took 15 years to increase access from 20 to 80%, and a further 11 to 20 years to reach full electrification. "This means there is room for optimism," said Pachauri.

But in sub-Saharan Africa, universal electrification still seems a distant dream. Compared to historical trends in the region, Rao and Pachauri show that there would have to be unprecedented rates of improvement in energy access to reach the sustainable development goal of universal electrification by 2030.

Reaching the last 20% of people is likely to be hardest to do, because these are often the most remote and marginal communities. However, following the lead of countries like China, Vietnam and Thailand, where the development of decentralized off-grid electricity supplies has been promoted, may help to speed up the process.

"These examples [China, Vietnam and Thailand] offer hope that future efforts need not be constrained by historical rates of progress," write Pachauri and Rao in ERL.

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