The solutions for the 21st century’s two biggest challenges—fixing climate change and securing a decent standard of living for the billions suffering from widening income disparities and resource depletion—have often seemed at odds.
Environmental pessimists have long claimed that fixing climate change would require sacrificing ambitions to level up the lives of the world’s poor—certainly in a world with a population expected to approach 11 billion people by century’s end. Meanwhile, those focused more on development have pointed out that, to improve the lives of the world’s worst off, consumption and emissions will necessarily have to rise.
Ecomodernism stepped into the fray to dispute both premises. The 2015 Ecomodernist Manifesto proclaimed “the belief that both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are . . . possible,” through a decoupling of “human well-being from environmental destruction.” Indeed, it says, they are “inseparable.”
But, as the old adage has it, you can only manage what you can measure. And if the optimistic instincts of ecomodernism are to hold sway in public discourse and policy making, they need better metrics to make the case. For while the world has myriad means of assessing progress towards fixing climate change—and teams of scientists permanently focused on the task—it has long lacked an agreed statistical measure of what securing a decent standard of living for all might entail. Does it, for instance, require adequate food, shelter, and health care? What about microwaves? Efficient transport? Internet access and cellphones?
Without a working definition, there has also been no clear understanding of what actual trade-offs—or synergies—might be entailed in achieving decent living standards while fixing the climate.
At least until now.
In recent research, Indian-born technologist Narasimha Rao, with a widening circle of collaborators in Europe and the United States, has developed the first working definition of a decent living standard in the 21st century. The bad news is that his analysis leaves many more of the world’s citizens below the poverty line than estimates derived from income or other indices, such as health or education, have previously suggested.
But the great news, outlined in the group’s latest analysis, published in September in the journal Environmental Research Letters, is that it would “not, in itself, pose a threat to mitigating climate change at a global scale” for the entire world to clear his bar. It may be that not all such needs can be met in the same way they have been in the rich world—at least not sustainably. Mobility, for instance, may mean a bus or motorbike rather than a private automobile.
But at a fundamental level, decency is not incompatible with sustainability. And that should be welcome news.
Hard Material Needs
Rao’s findings ought to have a profound impact on the divisive discourse on climate change, which continues to pit the attempts of developing countries to eliminate poverty by mimicking Western modes of development against many in the West who see this path as ruinous for the planet and ultimately self-defeating for the poor. They are both wrong. In truth, there need be no incompatibility. Ecomodernists are right: humanity can have its cake and eat it, too.
Rao, who grew up in a middle-class family in Mumbai but with poverty around him, is now at Yale University and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), an Austria-based intergovernmental think tank. He has spent years as what he calls an “interdisciplinary scholar,” addressing both technological advances and social equity and how they might interact.
He says that, until recently, little climate-change analysis, social research, or futurology has seriously addressed whether climate and living standards can be fixed together. Ecomodernists stepped in with strong belief in the power of transformative technology to both deliver abundant energy and break the umbilical cord linking prosperity to pollution. But theirs is a predominantly supply-side and top-down perspective, which can lead to a presumption that the benefits of prosperity and abundant energy will trickle down to deliver decent living standards for all.
Critics like Anna Walnycki and Tucker Landesman at the International Institute for Environment and Development say a top-down perspective risks increasing social and economic inequality unless “policies are shaped around the needs of ordinary citizens,” especially those in low-income urban communities. Moreover, as Rao points out, energy inequality around the world is even greater than income inequality. And by some measures, more income seems to only increase energy inequalities, according to analysis by researchers at the University of Leeds.
To grapple with such issues, Rao’s work, centered in the Decent Living Energy project, takes a bottom-up approach. It starts with an assessment of the hard material needs for eliminating poverty—particularly for the billion-plus people living in informal urban settlements without decent housing, sanitation, water, and other basic services—and does the work of separating out the energy needs for eradicating poverty from those to meet the demands of affluence.
In this way, Rao has added real numbers to the idea of a decent living, upending past global measures of poverty, which were removed from the real lives and material needs of the poor. The most widely used is based on the single metric of daily income per head. Once a dollar a day, the cutoff has now become $1.90 per day for extreme poverty, with a higher threshold of $5.50 per day used by the World Bank for upper-middle-income countries. Almost half the world’s population does not achieve this standard. But what you can buy with those dollars varies vastly round the world, as does what you need to purchase to achieve a decent standard of living. Other measures have looked to well-being outcomes, most influential among them being the UN’s Human Development Index, which is based on life expectancy, years of schooling, and income. But it does not set a threshold level, or measure what material requirements are needed to get to an “acceptable” (different from “good”) outcome.
Rao, with his colleague Jihoon Min, attempts to do better by identifying a shopping bag of material requirements, or “satisfiers,” that are as near as possible universal prerequisites for a decent modern life. They call these requirements “material conditions that people everywhere ought to have, no matter what their intentions or conception of a good life, or what other rights they may claim.”
Those material needs fit into 10 broad indicators of basic human well-being: nutrition, shelter, living conditions, clothing, health care, air quality, education, access to information and communication services, mobility, and freedom to gather and dissent. A person who achieves them does not necessarily have a life that a wealthy person in the West would recognize as comfortable. But they would have a life that could be called decent and dignified.
Many of these requirements derive from widely accepted benchmarks, but others go further. For instance, nutrition requires not just sufficient calories, but also vitamins and minerals and a refrigerator to store food safely. There’s also the need for a cooker that does not fill the home with smoke, part of the air-quality category.
Shelter and adequate living conditions require not just a roof over your head, but also sufficient floor space (depending on household size, typically 30 square meters per person), durable home construction, and sufficient heating and cooling equipment for “thermal comfort.” Also required is “sufficient clothing to achieve basic comfort” and access to a washing machine.
Health care and living conditions requirements include on-premises sanitation and water supplies (50 liters per head per day), plus access to adequate health care facilities and a minimum of one physician per 1,000 people.
The social well-being criteria include not just nine years of education, but also access to communication networks including one phone and one television or computer per household. These new needs, Rao and Min say, may not appear essential to life, but are “globally desired by an overwhelming majority of people,” so not to have them risks social disengagement and ostracism. The electronics need not be personally owned, they note, but access is vital.
The same holds for mobility, which they regard as necessary for social engagement and employment or selling wares. The decent living requirement is set at access to motorized transport, such as a bus or motorbike, sufficient for an average of around 25 kilometres per person per day.
Rao and his colleagues’ analysis of needs is often surprisingly granular. Current thinking holds that households of a similar income level around the world generally want the same appliances. His household surveys nuance that. While most people in most places do want a TV, cellphone, and refrigerator, his study with Kevin Ummel found washing machines are less universally desired, and ovens and tumble driers even less so. Race, culture, and religion are all factors. Patterns also differ depending on whether people live in urban areas and on the status of women; urbanity and greater equality both drive up demand for appliances connected with cooking and washing. People who consume a lot of milk products—such as Sikhs in India—want a refrigerator more than those who do not.
White people, Rao and Ummel note, are more fixated on white goods—that is, large electrical appliances. But they care less about motorbikes and some cooking equipment such as rice cookers, which are much more widespread in Asia.
It is impossible to say what proportion of the world’s population meets all Rao’s standards—or none. Some places far outstrip the basics. The average American has almost six times the “decent” level of floor space and consumes almost seven times as much water. Germans average four and 2.5 times those “decent” levels, respectively. But Rao’s estimates suggest that only two-thirds of people have attained half of them, with nutrition the most achieved and mobility the least. In fact, “the majority of the global population does not currently have decent levels of motorized transport,” coauthor Jarmo Kikstra of Imperial College London, has pointed out.
All this confirms findings from Rao and his colleagues’ analysis published in the September Environmental Research Letters that “more people are deprived of DLS [decent living standards] than are income-poor.” Worldwide, more than three billion people lack access to clean cooking options, space cooling, sanitation, and transport, and more than two billion lack cold storage, decent housing, and proper access to clean water.
In sub-Saharan Africa, over 60 percent of people do not have access to eight of the requirements for a decent standard of living, with deficits for cooling, sanitation, transport, water access, cold storage, housing, television, and clean cooking. In South Asia, over half the population lacks adequate sanitation, transport, cooling, clean cooking, water access, and cold storage.
Most standards are almost universally met in rich nations. Yet the data also show that a third of North Americans and 44 percent of Western Europeans miss out on transport needed for mobility, while in both regions about a tenth miss out on decent sanitation. This means that, around the world, in every corner of it, hundreds of millions of people need more, and no green transition that denies it to them could be considered sustainable or just.
The Cost of Decency
But can the gaps in access around the world be filled—and without crashing the climate?
To be sure, creating a world where everyone can have a decent living standard will require new public infrastructure and more private energy use. As Rao points out, much of the progress will only be achievable collectively—through public water supply and sanitation services, clinics, schools, public transit, cellphone networks, and so on. Much else will be best secured—and with lowest energy needs—collectively as well, with better public transport rather than an automobile in front of every house, for instance.
But the great takeaway is that truly essential needs are, as Rao says, mostly “cheap in terms of energy.” Doing some calculations based on the information in Rao and his coauthors’ Environmental Research Letters article, the infrastructure needed to meet decent living standards worldwide by 2040 will add less than 4 percent to current consumer energy demand. Half of that will be for improved housing, a quarter for public transit systems. Annual requirements to sustain those living standards would add a further 17 percent, making a total increase in energy needs to meet decent living standards of the world of just around 20 percent. That compares with an expected increase in energy demand, without ensuring decent living standards for all, of around 50 percent.
Put another way, these authors say, “essential energy needs to meet everyone’s basic needs . . . could constitute a small share of projected energy growth, namely, around an order of magnitude lower than current US energy demand.” And their analysis, the authors point out, assumes “only modest efficiency improvements, rather than relying on an ideal, high-tech future.”
The energy needed, in other words, may be even less than the headline figures suggest. For the poorest billion or so on the planet, reductions in deprivation will often come with reductions in energy use and environmental impact. Marta Baltruszewicz and her coauthors at the University of Leeds have recently shown from studies in Nepal, Vietnam, and Zambia that the households with higher well-being indicators used more energy than households with lower well-being. Without access to electricity or gas, the researchers found, low well-being households burned more firewood and charcoal than their higher well-being neighbors, resulting in more pollution and deforestation. And lacking clean drinking water, they were forced to constantly boil dirty water to make it safe. Overall, the study found that “households achieving well-being have 60%–80% lower energy footprint of residential fuel use” than the average in those countries.
The bottom line, according to Rao’s coauthor Alessio Mastrucci of IIASA, is that “we do not have to limit energy access to basic services. . . . even under very ambitious poverty eradication and climate mitigation scenarios, there is quite a lot of energy still available for affluence.”
Just how much, of course, matters a great deal for those of us in the rich world with energy-intensive lifestyles and a social conscience. But even before considering any energy technology transformation that can provide more power with fewer emissions, there is hopeful news.
The affluent still consume most of the planet’s resources, with the wealthiest tenth of the planet’s population consuming 20 times more energy than the poorest tenth. But there has been increasing discussion about whether some rich nations are reaching “peak stuff,” a tipping point beyond which material needs no longer rise with wealth—and may even fall. For example, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University has long argued that Western societies in general are starting to dematerialize.
And the evidence is growing, as studies increasingly call into question the presumed ratchet linking wealth and energy demands. For example, Europeans consumed 18 percent fewer raw materials in 2020 than they did in 2008, according to the European Commission. The British government’s Office for National Statistics calculated that the personal materials footprint of the average Brit—in food, textiles, construction materials, metals, fossil fuels, and so on—fell from 24.2 metric tons in 2001 to 13.4 metric tons in 2020.
Some of this decoupling is due to long-standing trends in improved technological efficiency, combined with more recent digital innovation. A single smartphone replaces a computer, a compass, a newspaper, and an alarm clock—not to mention a radio, a camera, a magnifying glass, a flashlight, and a music player. One optical fiber can do the work of a thousand copper phone wires. Global digital camera sales have declined by 87 percent in the past decade, as cameras in phones take their place.
Both public and private consumption patterns are changing in other ways, too. In the public domain, the assembly of infrastructure tends to peak as economies rapidly industrialize, and then falls. (That is why China has, in recent years, consumed 20 times more cement than America, and around eight times more steel too.) Even US president Joe Biden’s trillion-dollar infrastructure plans may not reverse this, since those appear to have less to do with cement and steel structures than broadband connectivity and power grids.
And American consumers are increasingly spending their money on experiences rather than on disposable material goods, according to McKinsey & Company analysts. Their findings suggest that, whereas prior generations defined themselves through their possessions, we now define ourselves more through our experiences, both real and virtual. The new car in the driveway matters less than the vacation you take with it. We don’t eat more, but instead go to more and better restaurants. We don’t buy ever more cheap furniture; we buy quality. Other modern lifestyle choices may also drive down material and energy requirements: eating less meat, going to the gym, and meeting up remotely rather than in person, for instance. People were driving less even before the COVID-19 lockdown.
If such trends continue, and if energy becomes less carbon-intensive, it would not be a stretch to imagine a world that can achieve decent living standards for all with few environmental tradeoffs.
A Case for Optimism
None of this is to say the future is easy. But Rao believes he has at least cleared up one question. His team, he says, wanted to know, “Can we reduce energy use to meet the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement without compromising peoples’ basic needs?” And the answer, he says, is that there are “significant opportunities . . . for growing sustainably, with less emissions.” Even he was surprised by the finding. “We didn’t expect that energy needs for a minimally decent life would be so modest, even for countries like India,” he said elsewhere.
His work, of course, does not show how we can attain decent living standards for all. Julia Steinberger, at the University of Leeds, says, “in our current economic system, all countries that achieve decent living standards use much more energy than what can be sustained if we are to avert dangerous climate breakdown.” Ecomodernists will see the potential lying at least as much in a massive technological transformation towards cheap and abundant low-carbon sources of energy. But either way, it does ease the path dramatically if everyone knows more clearly than before what is actually required and what is possible.
Since Rao began publishing his findings, the World Bank and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been among those to have called on him to help them integrate his ideas into their strategies for climate and development. “The World Bank sees it as a way to develop concrete strategies to align poverty eradication efforts with climate mitigation, because we highlight synergies between the two sustainability goals,” he says. He identifies three investment measures of global applicability that “are pro-poor and can reduce greenhouse gas emissions: support for urban public transit, quality public housing based on local materials, and encouraging diverse diets.”
To be sure, this new analysis raises as many questions as it answers. While it suggests collective public endeavors will be as important as individual wealth, it doesn't say how the world can best go about achieving decent living standards for all. Nor how best to reconcile them with meeting the aspirations of those who already have decent living standards. Still, Rao's work dramatically changes some of the math, and creates a more optimistic vision of the possibilities for meeting basic human needs without wrecking the climate on which we all depend.