December 21, 2009
Access to Energy, Poverty Alleviation and Policy Blinders
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.