Some 1.2 billion people do not have access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2016 report. About 2.7 billion still cook and heat their dwellings with wood, crop residues, and dung. In its main scenario for the trajectory of global energy consumption, the IEA projects that in 2040, half a billion people will still lack access to electricity and 1.8 billion will still be cooking and heating by burning biomass.
The agency defines the initial threshold for modern energy access as 250 kilowatt-hours (kwh) for rural and 500 kwh for urban households per year. How much is that? “In rural areas, this level of consumption could, for example, provide for the use of a floor fan, a mobile telephone and two compact fluorescent light bulbs for about five hours per day,” the IEA explains. For comparison, in 2015 the average annual electricity consumption for a U.S. household was 10,812 kwh—43 times the IEA’s energy access threshold for rural households.
In September the United Nations issued 17 new sustainable development goals that are supposed to be achieved by 2030. Universal access to affordable and clean energy is number 7. To achieve this goal, the U.N. says countries can “accelerate the transition to an affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy system by investing in renewable energy resources, prioritizing energy efficient practices, and adopting clean energy technologies and infrastructure.”
The transition to renewable energy resources in poor countries was discussed in “Scaling of Innovative Solutions for Mitigation and Adaptation,” a side event at the U.N. climate change conference in Marrakech, Morocco, last week. The panel highlighted the distribution of solar lanterns to poor households in Africa and the distribution of small solar panels that can be used to for lighting and to recharge mobile phones. Giving poor people access to such technologies is certainly better than nothing, but that still leaves them mired in energy poverty.
The eco-modernist Breakthrough Institute takes a very different view than the U.N. in a new report, Energy for Human Development. Eco-modernists argue that through technological progress humanity will increasingly withdraw from nature, enabling a vast ecological restoration over the course of this century.
The Breakthrough report rejects any approach based around small-scale energy projects aimed chiefly at supplying tiny amounts of electricity to millions of subsistence farmers. “There is no nation on earth with universal electricity access that remains primarily agrarian,” the authors note. “Modern household energy consumption has historically been achieved as a side effect of electrification for non-household purposes such as factories, electrified transportation, public lighting, and commercial-scale agriculture.” Rural electrification has always come last, after urbanization and economic development have taken off. For example, in the U.S. nearly 90 percent of city dwellers had electricity by the 1930s but only 10 percent of rural Americans did.
Given this universal growth dynamic, the Breakthrough writers call for prioritizing energy development for productive, large-scale economic enterprises. Copious and reliable energy will accelerate the creation and spread of higher-productivity factories and businesses, which then will generate the opportunities for a better life; that, in turn, will draw poor subsistence farmers into cities. They further note that energy access and electricity access are not the same thing. In fact, in 2012 electricity accounted for only about 18 percent of the energy consumed globally. “Efforts to address energy poverty must address needs for transportation fuels and infrastructure, and for fertilizer and mechanization of agriculture,” they argue.
But what about climate change? Current renewable sources of energy are not technologically capable of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of energy poverty. Consequently, the Breakthrough writers see “no practical path to universal access to modern levels of energy consumption” that keeps the projected increase in global average temperature below the Paris Agreement on climate change goal of 2 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level. This implies that atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide will exceed 450 parts per million. They correctly point out that forcing poor people to forego economic development in order to prevent climate change is a “morally dubious proposition.” They additionally observe that the wealth and technology produced by economic growth increases resilience to climatic extremes and other natural disasters. When bad weather encounters poverty, disaster ensues.
It is worth noting that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s shared socioeconomic pathway narratives for the rest of the century include one, dubbed “SSP5,” in which fossil fuels remain cheap, greenhouse gas concentrations more than triple, the average global temperature increases by nearly 4 degrees Celsius, and the rate of economic growth is high. Is that future a hell on earth? Not at all.
The “development first” SSP5 agenda results in the eradication of extreme poverty, greater gender equality, and universal access to education, safe drinking water, and modern energy before mid century, along with a strong build-up of developing countries’ human and social capacity. “Lower socio-environmental challenges to adaptation result from attainment of human development goals, robust economic growth, highly engineered infrastructure with redundancy to minimize disruptions from extreme events, and highly managed ecosystems,” notes the SSP report. In other words, people living in this economically robust scenario have greater incomes (up from the current average of around $10,000 to about $140,000 per capita in current dollars by 2100) and have access to much more advanced technologies with which to address whatever problems man-made climate change may throw at them.
The Breakthrough Institute report invokes the University of Colorado political scientist Roger Pielke Jr.’s “iron law of climate policy,” which states that “when policies on emissions reductions collide with policies focused on economic growth, economic growth will win out every time.” People will always favor policies to lessen energy poverty over strategies that aim to reduce the risks of man-made climate change.
“Lifting all of humanity out of energy poverty does increase the risk of catastrophic climate change impacts to some unknowable degree,” concludes the Breakthrough Institute report. “But it is untenable morally and practically to insist that global climate change targets be balanced upon the backs of the poorest people on earth.”