Sustainable Energy for All: How to Fight Poverty and Climate Change
September 27, 2012 | posted by The Institute
By Maha Atal
On Monday, the UN Secretary-General’s office coordinated a meeting on sustainable energy. The meeting was part of a new initiative that aims to achieve universal access to modern sources of energy, double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix and double the rate of improvement in energy efficiency, all by 2030.
The UN is a lot better at setting goals than achieving them, as anyone who has followed the Millennium Development Goals will know. But what makes this initiative noteworthy is the attempt to link the fight against climate change with the fight against poverty. Energy access is a critical prerequisite to poverty reduction, necessary for everything from heating homes to delivering public services to powering the businesses that create jobs.
Emerging powers sometimes paint these economic imperatives as incompatible with the fight against climate change. They see emissions caps as an unfair restriction on their economic advancement. But they’re wrong.
The IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlook concluded (see p. 488) that achieving universal electricity access by 2030 would result in only a 2% increase in global emissions. That’s because the 1.3 billion people living without electricity today live in the world’s poorest countries. And poor countries that do have universal electricity today draw far less power, on a per-capita basis, than rich ones.
Of course, the ultimate aim of expanding energy access is to spur economic growth and allow poor countries to become richer. But even with dramatic economic growth, these countries won’t be approaching the kilowatt-hours consumed in the developed world until long after 2030. And by that time, we could and should have viable, affordable carbon-neutral energy systems in place.
But if expanding access in the developing world will do little to increase emissions, it also follows that reducing emissions in the developing world will do little to reduce emissions globally. The onus for greening up the energy supply has to rest with developed countries, who consume 80% of the world’s energy and produce the bulk of greenhouse gas emissions.
This is where the tension between economics and environmentalism comes into play. Rich countries have, repeatedly, chosen to focus on green business experiments, like biofuel production or anti-deforestation campaigns, that rely on large acquisitions of land in the developing world. These efforts displace local agriculture, put the rural poor out of work, and reduce the global food supply.
The rhetorical link the UN is making between anti-poverty and anti-climate change work is important because it leaves no room for green projects that don’t have the best interests of the poor at heart. If this framing sticks, it will push the environmental movement to focus its efforts where they should always have been – on wind and solar – and to make sure that the cost of new technology is borne by those who can afford it.
There’s another implication to this marriage between anti-poverty and anti-climate change work. Of the 1.3 billion people without electricity and the 2.7 billion people without access to cooking and heating fuel, two-thirds are women, according to UNDP. Energy poverty keeps them locked out of the global economy, not only because they can’t access schools, health care or jobs, but because their time and labor is consumed in foraging for the rudimentary sources of power – from wood to dung – that their families require. Lifting these women out of energy poverty, and thereby out of poverty more generally, is one of the fastest routes to overall economic growth we have available.
The difficult thing, as always, is how to pay for it. New World Bank President Jim Kim spoke about involving the private sector in building energy infrastructure in the developing world, and announced a World Bank program to help companies map and identify opportunities for energy investments. UNDP chief Helen Clark called on donors to establish a new UN fund to cover the cost of smaller, especially rural, energy projects. But in a world recovering slowly from recession, there’s not a lot of donor cash to go around.