Can the world fight climate change and energy poverty at the same time?

March 10, 2013

The United Nations has set two huge energy-related goals for the coming century. The first is to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people who still don't have it. The second is to curtail fossil fuel use and keep global warming below 2°C.


Is there enough for everyone? (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)

Those are daunting goals. They're also in somewhat awkward tension with each other. The first requires increasing the amount of energy the world uses, including fossil fuels. The second requires harnessing cleaner power sources, using energy more efficiently, and even conserving power. So is it possible to do both at once?

The U.N. certainly thinks so. Last year, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon unveiled his "Sustainable Energy for All" initiative, which aims to bring electricity to 1.3 billion people by 2030, and double the amount of renewable energy in the world, and double the pace at which the world gets more energy-efficient. The estimated price tag? Some $48 billion per year, financed by the private sector, governments and the public sector.

In theory, assuming this plan was doable, it could be compatible with those broader climate goals. At least, that's the conclusion of a recent study in Nature Climate Change, which found the world would still have a good chance of staying below 2°C if it achieved all three of these goals by 2030. (But, the modelers caution, those three goals wouldn't be sufficient; limits on carbon emissions would likely also prove necessary. See Alex Kirby's write-up for more detail.)

Young Guineans, without access to electricity, study under carpark lights at G'bessi airport in Conakry, Guinea. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Young Guineans, without access to electricity, study under carpark lights at G'bessi airport in Conakry, Guinea. Photograph: Rebecca Blackwell/AP

That would certainly be a major boon for many poorer countries. Over at Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin has an important post exploring how energy poverty has left nearly 1 billion people without access to adequate health care. Not only that, but about 291 million children currently attend primary schools that lack electricity. To get a visual sense for what that's like, check out the photo on the right of students in Conakry, Guinea who are studying under carpark lights.

That said, other experts are skeptical that tackling climate change and energy poverty at once is as easy as it sounds. Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, has pointed out that the international community's definition of "modern energy access" tends to be pitiful — it means providing people with a mere 2.2 percent of the energy that the average American uses.

Why does that matter? Because, as Pielke writes in a follow-up essay for the Breakthrough Institute, tackling climate change would be much, much harder if the goal was to provide everyone with as much energy as, say, the average Bulgarian currently uses. Here's a chart making the point:

The red line at the bottom shows how much energy the world consumes today, about 500 quadrillion BTUs. The next line up shows the Energy Information Agency's projections for how much energy the world will use in 2035, about 800 quads. We're already living in a world in which energy use is growing fast and it's difficult to tackle climate change. But the lines above it show how much harder the task would get if the average person in the world used as much energy as Bulgarians do, or Germans do, or Americans do.

Pielke offers this way of looking at the problem. If we want to limit the amount of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere and stay below 2°C, we'll have to replace about 80 percent of our current fossil-fuel use with carbon-free energy and then use only carbon-free energy to meet our future needs. That's hard enough. But if we want everyone in the world to have as much access to energy as the average Bulgarian enjoys, then we'll need twice as much carbon-free power. And so on.

Now, that hardly means it's impossible for the world to tackle both climate change and energy poverty. But the two goals can be in tension with each other. Getting more ambitious on one puts a lot more pressure on the other.

Further reading:

--A short FAQ on why the world is trying to keep global warming below 2°C.

--Andrew Revkin writes about the myriad problems facing countries that lack access to energy.

--Roger Pielke Jr. asks, "How much energy does the world need?"

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Sarah Kliff · March 10, 2013