Author’s Note: I wrote this short research paper for an Academic Writing course at VinUniversity in Fall 2021. The whole process took around 2 months of research and writing, and I have decided to share it with you all as the topic of energy inequality is very dear to my heart. I hope you find it insightful!
We are at a strange point in time where for some, energy access has never been so effortless and abundant, while for others it remains an unfathomable challenge. Citizens of the world’s richest countries travel in diesel-fueled cars, clean their houses with vacuum cleaners, and sleep in air-conditioned rooms. On the other side of the planet, 1.3 billion people may have never seen a dishwasher and do not even have light bulbs to brighten their homes at night (World Bank, 2020). Another 2.8 billion lack access to clean cooking facilities (such as those powered by gas, fuel or electricity), instead relying on traditional biomass such as burning wood or dried animal dung for heating, which can lead to severe indoor pollution and respiratory diseases (World Bank, 2020).
These people suffer from what is called “Energy Poverty”, defined by Reddy (2020) as “the absence of sufficient choice in accessing adequate, affordable, reliable, high-quality, safe and environmentally benign energy services to support economic and human development.” Most people affected by energy poverty reside in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia Pacific. The graph below depicts countries with the lowest rates of electrification.
Figure 1: Countries with lowest rates of electrification.
Energy poverty is being actively tackled by UNDP’s Sustainable Goal 7, which seeks to make affordable, reliable and sustainable energy accessible for all by 2030. However, the achievement of SDG7 – lifting billions out of energy poverty – also suggests that carbon emissions that come with increased energy usage will also rise. With climate change in constant discussion, many people claim that lifting developing countries out of energy poverty will be too costly on the environment. Coupled with the fact that our world population is anticipated to grow to 9.7 billion by 2050 (United Nations, 2019), demand for fast, reliable energy sources will only increase. In fact, today’s most energy-insecure countries are expected to witness the largest population booms – for instance, sub-Saharan Africa will account for half of the world’s 1.9 billion growth (United Nations, 2019).
Despite these criticisms, the world cannot expect poor countries to remain underdeveloped because of climate change, nor is it fair for only industrialized countries to experience safe, comfortable living conditions. This begs the question: How can we provide global energy access to poor countries while making sure we are moving towards a carbon-free future? How can rich nations – the top energy consumers and polluters – cut down on their emissions to give poor countries a chance at economic growth? This research paper seeks to justify the transition of developing countries out of energy poverty and highlight the role of industrialized nations on an individual, country and international scale in maintaining the balance between global electricity access and climate mitigation.
1. Developing Countries Must Transition out of Energy Poverty.
Let us begin by establishing that in the 21st century, electricity is a fundamental right – it is simply impossible to live a safe, quality life without it. UNDP (2013) states that “Modern energy services play a key role in facilitating access to fundamental necessities such as clean water, sanitation and health care and advance development through the provision of reliable and efficient lighting, heating, cooking, mechanical power, transport and telecommunication services.” Accordingly, we need to accept that developing countries must transition out of energy poverty. This section will explore the social, economic and environmental factors incentivizing this transition.
First, energy poverty hinders the economic growth and social development of developing countries. Without electricity to power business centers, industries and schoolrooms it is almost impossible to ensure a thriving economy or high quality education. Lack of energy also limits development in several production sectors, for instance poor countries that have low-energy inputs in agriculture (mainly human and animal labor) are significantly less productive than richer countries with high-energy inputs like machinery, fuel and fertilizers (González-Eguino, 2015). Moreover, giving populations energy access can empower people to improve current production techniques, and internet would allow them to access online jobs, training programs, and set up micro-businesses easier. In terms of education, Khandker et al., (2012) found that children aged 5-18 in electrified households were more likely to be enrolled in schools, devoted more time to studying, and were more likely to complete schooling. In turn, this leads to a more qualified, productive workforce to power the economy.
Secondly, when people lack access to fuel, gas or electricity-powered cookstoves, they must burn biomass for cooking and heating – a solution extremely harmful to health and the environment. Most poor families burn their biomass indoors in secluded spaces for longer lasting fires. The traditional stoves, fueled by wood, charcoal or animal dung, often emits plumes of thick, toxic smoke that char the walls an ashy black.
Indian families cooking with biomass. (Poverty Action Lab, Indian Quartz, n.d.)
The burning of biomass and open cooking stoves creates a toxic compound called “black carbon” which is the second largest pollutant after CO2 and contributes to severe indoor air pollution. As found by the World Health Organization (2018), indoor air pollution caused over 4 million pre-mature deaths by inhalation of particulate matter with the majority of victims coming from low-income countries. On a global scale, biomass burning and open cooking stoves also account for 20% of total greenhouse gas emissions (UNDP, 2013) as black carbon absorbs solar energy, “harms ecosystems, reduces agricultural productivity and exacerbates global warming” (Cho, 2016). Since a large portion of biomass-burning comes from wood, over-collection of wood for burning can also lead to deforestation, exacerbating climate change.
Finally, in the case that the world is unable to curb climate change and must shift strategies to resilient adaptation, energy access will become even more essential for developing countries to survive. Many nations suffering from energy poverty have complicated climates which will only worsen with global warming. For instance, the harsh, dry climates of sub-Saharan Africa will become even more unbearable due to droughts, while farmers in hot and humid South India may suffer terrible floods that destroy their crops. Mutiso (2019) emphasizes that “Africa’s fight against climate change will require more energy, not less” and predicts that as climates deteriorate, Africans will need more resilient infrastructure, pumped irrigation for agriculture, desalination for drinking water, and cooling units for rising temperatures. The necessary infrastructure to adapt to climate change are extremely energy-intensive to build, but without them Africans will suffer painfully. If any of these infrastructures are to be built at all, though, Africa must start by extending energy access across its communities from today.
2. The Costs of Global Energy Access
Having established why developing countries must transition out of energy poverty, we now turn to the opponents’ looming question: Will universal energy access be too costly on the environment? While more greenhouse gases will undoubtedly be released in the process of electrification, the costs are lower than critics make it out to be, and we contend that this pollution is necessary for long-term growth. We will first examine case studies of electrification for India and sub-Saharan Africa, before calculating costs of global energy access.
Countries with energy poverty fall into two categories – those that have already national energy capacities (national grid, factories, transformers etc.) like India, and those that have not, such as Chad, Burundi and several other sub-Saharan African countries. India is endowed with vast coal reserves, which contribute to 57 percent of energy sources. Since India already possesses infrastructure suited to coal production, coal is the fastest and cheapest option to supply electricity to the 400 million people that need it (Narain, 2016). What is more, Indians without electricity are often poor farmers in rural areas who cannot afford the price of renewables, making coal an even more logical choice. For India, the extra pollution is inevitable. For sub-Saharan nations, it is a slightly different story. Newspapers often share inspirational stories about remote villages that set up small solar panels. However, this only paint half the picture – solar panels are indeed a force of good, but a few panels are far from enough for full electrification. Full electrification requires the collaborative work of a powerful national grid, along with off-grid devices to reach remote areas. Due to a shortage of capital, many sub-Saharan African countries lack such national grids. As these countries are building their capacities from scratch, many countries expects them to leap straight into renewables, which has already happened in the case of Kenya (93% renewable energy from geothermal and wind farms). While this is possible, such transitions for the poorest countries will require significant foreign investment, knowledge transfer, and of course, short-term pollution is inevitable as large factories and grid lines are erected.
In any case, developing countries will pollute more in the short-term as they increase electricity capabilities, and we must support them in lifting their citizens out of energy poverty by allowing them the necessary degree of pollution. Replacement of clean cooking fuel for 2.7 billion will cut down on greenhouse gas emissions substantially in the long term, and once developing countries finish setting up power facilities, emission levels will stabilize. Additionally, if countries building their power facilities anew all prioritize renewable energy, it will have contributed positively to long-term emission reduction.
Now let us talk about the cost of universal energy access – something that sounds incredibly daunting but has just been blown out of proportion. Several studies on the cost of electrifying the world’s poorest all suggest drastically lower costs than we imagined – for instance the calculations below done by Energy For Growth (2020) show that tripling energy consumption by gas of 1 billion sub-Saharan Africans would only contribute to 1.2% of total global emissions:
By estimates of the IEA (2020), achievement of SDG 7 – Universal Energy Access by 2030 requires an investment of approximately $979 billion, or an average annual investment of $40 billion from 2010 to 2030. González-Eguino, M. (2015) calculates that “This investment represents an average contribution of around €5 per person per annum at global level, or €25 per person per annum if it is funded entirely by OECD countries.” Imagine that – we can virtually fund global energy access if richer folks just dine out one or two meals less (and that is not even counting the $28.3 billion revenue generated from global carbon tax that could be partially reallocated)!
3. The Role of Industrialized Nations: Cutting down on Energy Consumption and Consumerism to give Others a Shot at Development.
Understanding that developing countries will pollute more as they electrify themselves, we can deduce that the only other way to reach net-zero emissions is for industrialized countries to take the cut. While asking energy-starved nations to cut down on energy usage is like skinning their power sources to the bone, asking rich countries to use less energy is comparable to merely lower overconsumption. This section explores the role of industrialized nations in bridging the energy inequality divide, on an individual consumer, national, and international scale.
a. On the individual level
The graph below from BP and Shift Data Portal shows that citizens of developed countries disproportionally overconsume compared to developing countries.
Figure 2: Energy Consumption per Person
More specifically, the average American consuming as much energy as 3 Chinese, 12 Indians, 40 Nigerians and 150 D.R. Congolese. Citizens from developed countries also spend 187 times as much on transportation, 500 times as much on communications, and account for virtually all pollution from air travel (Oswald et al., 2020). Chakravarty et al., calculated that reducing the emissions of the top billion highest emitters contribute much more to climate mitigation than providing the bottom 2.7 billion a basic level of emissions for proper living conditions. On an individual basis, citizens of industrialized nations can limit their carbon footprints through simple methods like turning off the AC, prioritizing public transit to lower personal fuel expenditures, and limiting unnecessary fast-fashion or technological purchases that are energy-intensive to produce. These may seem like small actions, but when simultaneously done by millions of people, they can have tremendous results.
b. On the National Level
A solution that can be quickly enacted for governments of industrialized nations is to set/raise carbon taxes, or implement an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which sets a limit on the amount of CO2 each major company can emit while allowing them to “trade” emission credits with one another. The author strongly recommends that these measures be taken in the United States, Russia and Saudi Arabia, which are some only developed nations without any form of environmental limitations despite being the 2nd, 4th and 7th largest contributor to global emissions respectively.
A study by Columbia Center on Global Energy Policy (2018) suggests that with an economy-wide $50/ton carbon tax, the United States would be able to cut emissions by 39 to 47 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Depending on the rate, carbon taxes could also increase U.S. renewable energy to 29 to 41 percent of all electricity production (two to three times that in 2015) and could decrease coal production up to 80 percent (CCGEP, 2018).
The other necessary solution is to push transitions to renewable energy sources much more aggressively. In most G20 countries, achieving 30 percent renewable energy share would reduce emissions from 15 to 20 percent (IRENA, 2016).
Table 2: Potential for energy related CO2 emissions with renewables in G20 countries
Though costly and daunting, transitioning to renewables is a necessary step to show that nations are standing by their commitments to at the Paris Climate Accords and putting aside national economic interests for global environmental security. Taken together, carbon taxes, ETS and renewable energy will enable rich nations to cut down on more emissions than electrifying Africa will produce.
c. On the International Level
Looking that the problem from a global perspective, the problem of curbing energy emissions requires strong international collaboration to ensure accountability of large polluters support for developing countries transition out of energy poverty. One of the first and most crucial steps is to adopt a shared understanding of carbon emission allowances and carbon tax rates for high, mid and low-income countries. After that, international expansions of the ETS should be considered.
Another idea is to roll out an improved version of Kyoto Protoccol’s Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) – a scheme that allowed developed countries to earn carbon credits by investing in sustainable energy projects in developing countries. In its 13 years of operation, the scheme invested over $300 billion in 111 developing countries, and reduced/avoided 2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (UNFCC, 2018). However, its success was debated as thousands of ongoing projects yielded low-quality results, or blatantly served rich countries’ interests while failing to make real sustainable contributions to local communities. The new CDM initiative should redirect investment to projects focused on building core energy capacities of sub-Saharan African countries – particularly grids – and should be limited to no more than 50 ongoing projects, along with frequent investigations to ensure accountability and results.
Summing up, it is crucial for low-income countries to transition out of energy poverty. As more energy is consumed and production facilities are built, it is inevitable that these countries will pollute more – yet this is pollution is wholly justified and necessary for the long-term development of the world. This research paper has some limitations, such as only analyzing representative countries and not considering each developing nation’s special characteristics or needs in electrification (fossil fuel potential, natural resources endowment, telecommunications service, etc.). However, it clearly communicates the feasibility of achieving universal energy access whilst mitigating climate change – all at a cost of only 1 percent of global GDP.
This scenario requires industrialized nations to cut down on individual energy consumption, lower emissions by means of carbon taxes, emissions trading schemes, and transition to renewable energy sources. On global scale, moving towards a carbon-neutral, fully electrified world would require international cooperation to promote accountability of nations’ climate commitments, and also channel more investments into sub-Saharan African energy infrastructure projects.
While developed countries may not be too keen on this “take one for the team” situation, these sacrifices are necessary and just. Having benefited from the industrial revolution and achieved comfortable living conditions at the environmental costs and colonies’ suffering, it is now their turn to pay their good fortune forward. It is not enough to live a free, comfortable life in isolation, as Nelson Mandela puts it “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
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