Energy, poverty and climate change

One of the reasons why I spend comparatively little time talking about reducing energy consumption as a way to tackle climate change is that energy use worldwide is going to keep on growing dramatically. In comparison to this, the question of energy efficiency in richer countries is a sideshow, despite the amount of time and political energy expended on the question by climate campaigners.

Even with the rapid advances made in emerging economies in recent years, the statistics are still shocking. Over 1.5 billion people still do not have access to electricity, having to depend on dirty – and expensive – kerosene lamps for lighting, and wood or dung for cooking and space heating. The widespread use of biomass leads to deforestation and the serious climate impact of black carbon (soot – possibly the second-most important climate-forcing agent after CO2). Much worse, indoor air pollution from open fires or bad stoves also leads to high levels of mortality from respiratory disease, especially among women and children. The likely death toll is 1.5 million a year – worse even than malaria.

I wholeheartedly agree with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s call for a target of universal access to modern energy by 2030. NGOs need to up their game if energy access targets are to achieve international visibility and a higher priority in the queue for development aid. Practical Action’s campaign to ‘Make the Call‘ (the recipient being the EU’s development commissioner) is an important contribution – please do support it.

But I feel slightly queasy when so much of the discussion is focused around supposedly-appropriate renewable technologies only. As one expert puts it:

A suite of off-grid renewable energy technologies — solar home systems, biogas cookstoves and small hydropower units — can deliver energy services to rural households more cost-effectively than national grids, without relying on expensive and polluting fuels.

The rural/urban distinction is crucial here. Off-grid solutions are largely irrelevant for the urban poor, the billions of people who have left the land to migrate to the teeming megacities in search of work and a better life, and who find themselves in slums with little access to modern services of any sort. To its credit, Practical Action – which gently criticises WWF’s exclusive focus on renewables – makes clear that grid connections are exactly what is needed in these urban areas.

I would go further than this. Electricity grids in developed countries are not some kind of historical accident which developing countries should seek to avoid, they are a crucial way of delivering uninterrupted, high-quality electricity to settled, dense populations. In the UK only a few hippies live off-grid – for the good reason that only a few hippies are prepared to tolerate the drudgery of chopping wood, installing micro-wind/hydro, fixing broken solar panels and so on with the only alternative of living in the dark.

Hence the romantic green bias towards off-grid, micro-sized renewables is highly questionable. Perhaps at best these can be a stepping stone towards high-quality and reliable grid connections that populations in developing countries will expect by the time they reach ‘developed’ status. (And with the breakneck rate of growth now in China, Brazil, India and even some sub-Saharan African countries, that date is not as far off as it once seemed.) I am sure they are part of the solution in remote rural areas where centralised grid connections would be prohibitively expensive to install. But they are not the only – or even the main – solution.

Instead, we find a similar challenge in developing countries – especially ones with dense population centres – as we now find in the developed world: how to deliver vast amounts of power via centralised networks without increasing (and hopefully in due course eliminating) emissions of fossil fuels. As China is demonstrating, all forms of low-carbon generation need to be on the table, including nuclear, large hydro and big renewables like wind.

Energy access is a crucial precondition for development and the elimination of poverty. Try running a business in any country without lights, phones or computers. But the poor should not be forced to have to generate their own electricity – and potentially put up with sub-standard services – because campaigners in rich countries think decentralised power is the One True way. Let off-grid renewable solutions be restricted to situations where they are undeniably the best option – because they are cheaper or higher-quality than the alternative.

Small may be beautiful, but to solve a global-scale problem, let there be no doubt – big is better.

© Mark Lynas
« · »