COP21 – Who is it all for?

November 23, 2015

Our Trustee and Vice Chair Sarah Donnelly, discusses the link between energy, poverty relief and climate resilience.

This blog was written for FTI consulting and also appears on their website

“Madam Sarah, please do not forget us.”

I will never forget Gertrude, who made this plea for help as I left her village in Kenya last year. In the run up to COP21, she and all those whose stories I carry with me, are particularly front of mind. Each day, the women in Gertrude’s remote rural village on the shores of Lake Victoria have to sell fish their husbands caught the night before. But the tradesmen buying the fish know they will rot after a few hours in the heat. With trucks full of ice, they toy with the women as the price of their fish decreases, buying only from those who will grant them sexual favours. Known locally as ‘fish for sex’, it contributes to the spread of HIV and it broke my heart.

Meeting women who have to walk four kilometres to fetch a can of water eight times a day was devastating, too. I could barely carry a full can one metre. They told me climate change is making the rainy season shorter so many families have no choice but to keep their daughters (aged 7 plus) out of school to help with collection. Travelling long distances alone to the water source, they are often abused by men from other villages.

Most families I met were taking care of several orphans as well as their own children because their parents had died of AIDS. I met families who all drink and bathe in the same lake water they defecate in. They know it is wrong but only a few can afford to buy chlorine to treat the water. Cholera, typhoid and diarrhoea are rife. Every woman I met had blood red swollen eyes and painful lungs from cooking five hours a day with toxic kerosene.

These are the daily struggles of communities we work with at Renewable World, in Asia, Africa and Central America. They are among the three billion people globally who still have no access to reliable electricity. Like all of the world’s poorest people, they are the most affected by climate change, yet least able to deal with the impacts.

Rising temperatures and more extreme weather events threaten their food, water supply and safety.

Renewable World helps these vulnerable communities adapt to the uncertainty of a changing climate. Working with local partners, we provide clean energy so they can set up small businesses, generate a sustainable income and improve their quality of life. It was wonderful to meet Ken, who used the energy we provided for solar lighting to keep his café business open through the night and earn more money to send his children to school.

Other communities use their energy to pump water all year round for irrigation and domestic use, relieving women from the heavy burden of collection. The time saved can be used to increase crop yields and varieties, pursue education and set up micro-enterprises. Diverse income streams mean one bad harvest will not leave people with nothing. They can prosper in the good times and they are more resilient in the bad.

“I have access to water all year round. I’ve planted potatoes, cabbages, tomatoes. I take vegetables to the market and sell them…I am able to look after my family’s needs. I feel capable and full of happiness.” Sumina, Muralibhanjyang, Nepal

We train each community in how to manage their own energy infrastructure (solar micro-grid, water pumps, biogas plants) empowering them with skills in financial control, business management, operations, maintenance, and governance. Diana (treasurer of her new energy hub) explains with delight that her fishing community now has refrigeration and lighting and can preserve their catch, reclaiming the power to negotiate a higher price and avoid exploitation. As with fish, our clean energy systems can be used to preserve other perishable produce so farmers can bring them to market when conditions are best and gain better prices for their hard work.

Yet all of our efforts to alleviate poverty and build resilience to climate change will be undermined if the Paris outcomes fail to keep the global average temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius. It will spell disaster for millions of people without energy. Renewable World, along with other NGO, private and public sector players, needs to see ambitious action from the deal in Paris, which recognises historical responsibility and has clear links to the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Access to energy, poverty relief and climate resilience go hand in hand. Yet SDG energy goals cannot be met by applying grid energy solutions. The International Energy Agency explains that only 30% of energy for those in need is currently likely to come from grid extension. The majority will have to come from decentralised (off-grid) sources. Renewable energy, crucially, is often cheaper for the most remote areas and does not compromise the planet. Still, most communities do not have the upfront capital to buy this technology. That is why Renewable World’s sustainable, affordable, tailored approach, targeted around improving livelihoods and well-being, is so important and effective.

To provide as many people as possible with power we will need funders, we will need global partners and we will need others to replicate our model. All of these will be easier to achieve if the frameworks, the intentions, the language and, most notably, the finances are set at an international level. Paris must produce meaningful financial support for adaptation, building resilience and to facilitate a leapfrog of fossil fuel usage in the global south. This could provide organisations like Renewable World with major funding opportunities, so we can magnify our impact on the ground by accelerating the rollout of community scale renewable energy projects. Equally, on a larger scale, the private sector and national governments require the same outcomes to pursue a similar trajectory.

It is hard to believe that something as simple as one solar panel can empower women, improve health, relieve poverty, increase resilience, reduce sexual exploitation and the spread of HIV and advance education in one small village. But it can. Imagine then what tackling climate change internationally, using renewable energy, could achieve the world over. Despite the UK Government leading my own nation backwards on renewables, world leaders must show responsibility and use Paris to mark an urgent transition towards proven renewable energy technology, globally. That is the only way to give people like Gertrude and her family a chance of a future.

One year on, Gertrude has access to clean energy through her Renewable World community energy hub. Her fuel costs have reduced by 75% and she and her children are no longer being harmed. “I have benefited from the small business training and the selling of vegetables… and we earn 200-300 shillings a day, this is enough for me.” Not only will I never forget Gertrude but I will share her plea with anyone, like you, who will listen. Thank you.

f-3Sarah Donnelly – Vice Chair, Renewable World @SolarSare

Sarah has over sixteen years’ experience working in the charitable sector, with expertise in major donor fundraising. After graduating in Environmental Issues, Sarah spent twelve years with Friends of the Earth, the world’s largest international environmental campaigning network. She began her career supporting national and international policy and campaigns which included attending COP8 and COP9 before joining the major donor fundraising team, raising significant funds from private individuals, trusts and foundations and public advocates. Sarah was a key member of the climate change fundraising team which enabled Friends of the Earth to secure the world’s first climate change law in 2008. Sarah joined the trustees of Renewable World in February 2014 and was appointed Vice Chair in January 2015.

To find out more about Renewable World or to get involved, please do get in touch on 01273 234801 or

As an implementing organisation with finite resources, our expertise must remain focussed on the ground, which means Renewable World cannot be in Paris. We know we can rely on climate change campaigning groups who are specialists in advocacy, to speak up for the vulnerable. However we will be following the talks closely and we will be at The Climate March in London on 29 November on behalf of everyone in need of access to affordable, reliable, clean, renewable energy

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