Our High-Energy Planet
More than one billion people globally lack access to electricity, and billions more still burn wood and dung for their basic energy needs. Our High-Energy Planet, a new report from an international group of energy and environment scholars, outlines a radically new framework for meeting the energy needs of the global poor.
According to the authors, the massive expansion of energy systems, mainly carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, is the only robust, coherent, and ethical response to the global challenges we face, climate change among them. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet, they say.
“Climate change can’t be solved on the backs of the world’s poorest people,” said Daniel Sarewitz, coauthor and director of ASU’s Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes. “The key to solving for both climate and poverty is helping nations build innovative energy systems that can deliver cheap, clean, and reliable power.”
With increasing bipartisan support for the Electrify Africa Act, alongside Obama’s Power Africa initiative to double energy access in sub-Saharan Africa, calls for more equitable definitions of energy access are gaining traction. This includes support for energy technologies beyond solar lamps and cleaner cook stoves.
A recent analysis from the Center for Global Development, for instance, estimates that if $10 billion were invested in renewable energy technology in sub-Saharan Africa, then 30 million would gain access to electricity. If the same amount of money was given to gas-fired generation, it would supply around 90 million – or three times as many people.
Commitment to a high-energy planet, the authors argue, “empowers growth and development using the broadest array of energy services, technologies, and policies that can meet the manifold needs of developing societies.”
Today, over one billion people around the world—five hundred million of them in sub-Saharan Africa alone—lack access to electricity. Nearly three billion people cook over open fires fueled by wood, dung, coal, or charcoal. This energy poverty presents a significant hurdle to achieving development goals of health, prosperity, and a livable environment.
The relationship between access to modern energy services and quality of life is well established. Affordable and reliable grid electricity allows factory owners to increase output and hire more workers. Electricity allows hospitals to refrigerate lifesaving vaccines and power medical equipment. It liberates children and women from manual labor. Societies that are able to meet their energy needs become wealthier, more resilient, and better able to navigate social and environmental hazards like climate change and natural disasters.
Faced with a perceived conflict between expanding global energy access and rapidly reducing greenhouse emissions to prevent climate change, many environmental groups and donor institutions have come to rely on small-scale, decentralized, renewable energy technologies that cannot meet the energy demands of rapidly growing emerging economies and people struggling to escape extreme poverty. The UN’s flagship energy access program, for example, claims that “basic human needs” can be met with enough electricity to power a fan, a couple of light bulbs, and a radio for five hours a day.
A reconsideration of what equitable energy access means for human development and the environment is needed. As this paper demonstrates, a massive expansion of energy systems, primarily carried out in the rapidly urbanizing global South, in combination with the rapid acceleration of clean energy innovation, is a more pragmatic, just, and morally acceptable framework for thinking about energy access. The time has come to embrace a high-energy planet.
This paper looks to history for guidance in achieving a high-energy world. Historically, energy modernization has been driven by a strong public commitment to expand modern energy services, ensure equitable energy access, and achieve broader economic development goals. Smart public policies will promote increasingly productive uses of energy, engage the private sector to ensure reliable and cost-effective services, support energy innovation activities, and proceed in concert with long-term development goals.
A commitment to a high-energy planet empowers growth and development using the broadest array of energy services, technologies, and policies that can meet the manifold needs of developing societies. The way we produce and use energy will become increasingly clean not by limiting its consumption, but by using expanded access to energy to unleash human ingenuity in support of innovating toward an equitable, low-carbon global energy system.