22 September 2010

Access to Energy, Poverty Alleviation and Policy Blinders

The NYT has a story today on a new report from the IEA (here in PDF) issued in conjunction with a meeting of the UN general Assembly:

More than $36 billion a year is needed to ensure that the world’s population benefits from access to electricity and clean-burning cooking facilities by 2030, the International Energy Agency said Tuesday.

In a report prepared for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals meeting in New York, the agency said the goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2015 would be possible only if an additional 395 million people obtained access to electricity and one billion gained access to more modern cooking facilities that minimize harmful smoke in the next few years.

“Without electricity, social and economic development is much more difficult,” Fatih Birol, the energy agency’s chief economist, said by telephone. “Addressing sanitation, clean water, hunger — these goals can’t be met without providing access to energy.”

The problem of energy inequality mirrors the gap between rich and poor countries, Mr. Birol said. “The amount of electricity consumed by sub-Saharan Africa, with 800 million people, is about the same as that used in New York State, with about 19 million people,” he said.
But as anyone who understands the Kaya Identity knows, bringing people out of poverty will necessarily lead to greater greenhouse gas emissions.  Birol tries to sidestep this issue:

Mr. Birol played down concerns that bringing more of the global population into the modern energy economy would be bad for the environment.

He predicted that meeting the development goal would raise global oil consumption just 1 percent, while raising carbon emissions only 0.8 percent.
I have discussed these estimates before, and they simple to not stand up to the most basic of arithmetic.  As I wrote last November, when I critiqued a similar statement from Birol:
[T]he IEA is arguing that electricity can be provided to 1.3 billion people by 2030 and it will add only 0.24 GtCO2. Somehow I don't find that to be credible.

By contrast, if each of those 1.3 billion people had average emissions at the 2007 world average of 4.4 tCo2 they would add about 5.72 GtCO2 to the 2030 total, or an increase of 14% over the [450 ppm stabilization] Reference Scenario.

What this exercise shows is that you can have a lot of fun with Reference Scenarios and Stabilization Scenarios, none of which is too closely connected to the real world. To suggest that access to electricity for 1.3 billion people can be provided at a marginal emission increase of 0.24 GtCO2 is misleading at best, and yet another example of how international assessments serve to dramatically understate the magnitude of the decarbonization challenge.
I understand what Birol is trying to do -- he wants to avoid any perception that poverty alleviation comes into conflict with efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.  So he is arguing that you can lift people from poverty with almost no effect on carbon dioxide emissions.  This argument is just wrong.  While this argument allows the poverty alleviation and carbon dioxide reduction agendas to seemingly co-exit harmoniously, it dramatically downplays the challenge of emissions reductions.

This is a shame, because the best path forward to accelerating decarbonization of the global economy lies not in pretending that a conflict does not exist between poverty alleviation and emissions reductions, but precisely the opposite.  The only way that we will meet the world's energy needs of the future -- especially the needs of the 1.5 billion lacking access -- is to diversify and reduce the cost of energy via a commitment to innovation.

When we put on policy blinders to avoid seeing things we'd rather not, sometimes the result is that we miss out on seeing some pretty important things as well.


  1. The initial provision of power and cooking energy for the impoverished will mean fairly low incremental power consumption. In addition, many of the GHG impacts associated with those people already exist - agricultural practices for their food, transportation for their food and clothing, etc. So if we are talking about adding 200W of electrical average power per home (10 15W lightbulbs intermittent and small fridge constant), with an average of 4 people per home, using an average electricity emissions value of 0.5 kg/kWh, some quick math yields a net increase of 0.57GtCO2 to provide 1.3 billion people (325 million homes) with 200W of average electrical power using an average mix of coal, natural gas, and renewables. Add to that the cooking switch (not sure what that is, but you could make a guess that it will be around the same magnitude), and a figure of 1GtCO2 increased emissions to bring 1.3 billion to electricity access and cleaner cooking seems reasonable. To bring this same number to world average or Western standards is an entirely different discussion, but I don't find the numbers that unbelievable for the first step out of no-electricity, noxious cooking poverty.

  2. Well put, Roger. I especially like your point that the only viable path to decarbonization of the world economy is to provide energy that is cheaper than carbon-based energy sources. While this is a big ask, it is still the only way forward. The reason is that, while coal remains the cheapest way of producing electricity, it will continue to be used until the cost of it exceeds the alternatives. If Western nations decarbonize ahead of the need to do so on a cost-driven basis, China and India have made it clear that they will take up the slack. The total amount of coal burned will not be affected. All that will result is a transfer of wealth from Western nations to the East.

  3. heyworth said... 2

    "The reason is that, while coal remains the cheapest way of producing electricity, it will continue to be used until the cost of it exceeds the alternatives."

    I would posit that in most of the world, coal is cheaper only if you already own a coal fired electricity plant or you have a strong aversion to nuclear or you need power 'now' and the 5 year waiting list for nuclear forgings is too long to wait.

  4. "All that will result is a transfer of wealth from Western nations to the East."

    That's precisely the point for a lot of folks.