by Judith Curry
The world’s poor need more than a token supply of electricity. The goal should be to provide the power necessary to boost productivity and raise living standards. – Morgan Brazilian and Roger Pielke Jr.
Issues in Science and Technology has published a new paper entitled ‘Making Energy Access Meaningful’, by Morgan Brazilian and Roger Pielke Jr [link]. Excerpts:
Our distinctly uncomfortable starting place is that the poorest three-quarters of the global population still only use about ten percent of global energy – a clear indicator of deep and persistent global inequity. Because modern energy supply is foundational for economic development, the international development and diplomatic community has rightly placed the provision of modern energy services at the center of international attention focused on a combined agenda of poverty eradication and sustainable development.
Compounding the difficulty of decision-making in such a complex space is that the concept of “energy access” is often defined in terms that are unacceptably modest. Discussions about energy and poverty commonly assume that the roughly two to three billion people who presently lack modern energy services will only demand or consume them in small amounts over the next several decades. This assumption leads to projections of future energy consumption that are not only potentially far too low, but therefore imply, even if unintentionally, that those billions will remain deeply impoverished. Such limited ambition risks becoming self-fulfilling, because the way we view the scale of the challenge will strongly influence the types of policies, technologies, levels of investment and investment vehicles that analysts and policy makers consider
As Wolfram and colleagues observe in a recent study, “The current forecasts for energy demand in the developing world may be understated because they do not accurately capture the dramatic increase in demand associated with poverty reduction.” The point is that energy access is not an end per se; rather it is a necessity for moving to vibrant and sustainable social and economic growth. The lower the assumed scale of the challenge, the more likely the focus will turn to incremental change that amounts to “poverty management,” rather than the transformational changes that will be necessary if we are to help billions climb out of poverty.
Most readers will have already recognized that our discussion has significant implications for the question of climate change. Former NASA scientist James Hansen expressed his view of the issue with typical candor, when he said, “if you let these other countries come up to the level of the developed world then the planet is done for.” For the most part, however, the ambition gap has kept this uncomfortable dilemma off the table. If one assumes that billions will remain with levels of energy consumption an order of magnitude less than even the most modest definition of modern access, then one can understand the oft-repeated claim that universal energy access can be achieved with essentially no increase in the global emissions of carbon dioxide.
Conflicts between climate and energy priorities deserve a deeper and more open airing in order to help better frame policy options, including the difficult question of trade-offs among competing valued outcomes. The issues are playing out right now, but remain largely unacknowledged. For instance, under US Senate Bill S.329 (2013) the Overseas Private Investment Corporation – a federal agency responsible for backstopping U.S. companies which invest in developing countries – is essentially prohibited from investing in energy projects that involve fossil fuels, a policy that may have profound consequences in places like sub-Saharan Africa that are seeking to develop oil and gas resources to help alleviate widespread energy poverty. At the same time, a different US federal agency – the U.S. Export-Import Bank – helped fund a 4.9 GW coal plant (Kusile) in the Republic of South Africa. The coal plant will help serve both industry and households that currently lack access. These simultaneous interventions appear incoherent. Making such issues more transparent, and opening them up to debates with multiple stakeholders with multiple values and success criteria offers the promise of enriching the array of policy options on the table.
The United Nations has attempted to square this circle of climate and energy through the phrase “Sustainable Energy for All”. Still, since value-judgments must be made and priorities established, the UN initiative has explicitly stated a “technology neutral” principle and given primacy to national decision-making, and implicitly has made the goal of universal energy access a “first among equals” of the three sustainable energy goals (the other two relating to renewable energy and energy efficiency). In practice however, as we have emphasized, the trade-offs involved in policies related to climate and energy have often received less than a full airing in policy debate.
The course of development followed by virtually all nations demonstrates that people around the world desire a high-energy future. Our plea is that we begin to recognize that fact, and focus more attention and resources on positively planning for, and indeed bringing about, that future. Achieving universal modern energy access will require transformations – in aspirations, but also, for example, in technological systems, institutions, development theory and practice, and in new ways to conceptualize and finance energy system design. Being clear about what modern energy access means can create a foundation for making huge strides in bridging the global equity gap not just in energy but in the new wealth, rising standard of living, and improved quality of life that modern energy access can help to bring.
Ultimately, a focus on energy access at a low threshold limits our thinking, and thus our options. Adopting a more ambitious conception of energy access brings conflicting priorities, as well as the scale of the challenge, more clearly into focus and makes hidden assumptions more difficult to avoid. Now more than ever the world needs to ensure that the benefits of modern energy are available to all and that energy is provided as cleanly and efficiently as possible. This is a matter of equity, first and foremost, but it is also an issue of urgent practical importance.
JC comments: For the sake of argument, lets assume that the IPCC consensus is roughly correct regarding dangerous anthropogenic climate change, with the dangers becoming apparent in the latter half of the 21st century, and mitigation of CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels is necessary, urgent, imperative (or whatever the latest word being used in professional society advocacy statements).
How do you square this climate policy ‘imperative’ with the real need right now of the majority of the people on the planet for greater access to energy? Further, the potential development associated with increased energy could make these societies far more resilient to natural disasters (whatever the cause) than they currently are now. Not to mention that developed countries have lower population growth rates and pay more attention to their environment.
Which imperative is more ‘moral’ – to insist on reduced fossil fuel emissions over concern about what might happen > 50 years hence, in a future world that we can hardly imagine, or to support energy equity in the developing world and concretely improve lives in the here and now? How would cost/benefit analysis of this tradeoff even be conducted? What is the ‘morality’ here?
To those scientists that are advocating for a global emissions reduction policy, have you thought this one through (Jim Hansen seems to have)? This is one of the issues that makes the climate change problem so wicked.