Squaring Global Poverty with Climate Change

Meeting the energy demands of modern society without destroying the planet will require a new approach to climate and energy issues.

Growing up on a goat farm in Wisconsin, my family cooked and heated our home exclusively with wood fires. We had electricity but used little of it, which meant lighting with kerosene lamps or candles and hanging our clothes to dry over the wood stove in the winter.

We did all of this not for lack of resources but out of a concern for the environment and a commitment to voluntary simplicity. Like many in the environmental community today, we believed that modern, high-energy living was ruining the planet and that we would all be better off if we lived more like our ancestors did.

My views started to change after I lived and traveled in Peru after college in the 1990s. At the time, only about 60 percent of Peruvians had access to electricity, and those who did were largely people in the city. Most in the countryside relied on wood or charcoal for energy, which had to be chopped and hauled regularly. Peruvian women and girls cooked over open fires, breathing smoke for many hours of the day.

Whatever romantic views one has of wood-burning, the sheer health consequences of breathing smoke are terrifying. Two million people around the world die prematurely from breathing smoke each year and half of all of pneumonia deaths among children under the age of five are from breathing indoor smoke.

Thankfully, today nearly 86 percent of Peruvians have access to electricity, and over the last 20 years life expectancy rose from 67 to 73. Like billions of others around the world who gained electricity in the last two decades, their lives have improved dramatically.

The United Nations, President Obama, Bill Gates, Bono’s ONE Campaign, and others have brought needed attention to the importance of energy access and the unnecessary tragedy of continuing energy poverty, defined by the International Energy Agency (IEA) as a lack of access to modern energy services. More than 1.3 billion people across the globe live without any access to electricity, while 2.6 billion people still cook over open fires of wood, dung, and charcoal.

Smoke inhalation is just one example of the dramatic effects energy poverty has on people’s lives. There is, in fact, a strong correlation between energy use and human development: Access to modern energy services is vital for everything, including clean water, health care, reliable lighting, transport, and telecommunications services. This is especially true for women and girls, as increased energy access corresponds to improved school attendance, better maternal health, and access to information through media and telecommunications.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, no nation in the modern era has substantially reduced poverty without a dramatic increase in its energy use, and over the past decade the global community has begun taking energy poverty more seriously. In the last year alone, the Obama administration launched its Power Africa initiative to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa, and a United Nations High Level Panel of Eminent Persons has recommended that universal access to modern energy services be included in the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

Yet despite the clear and urgent need to increase access to modern energy services for people in the developing world, climate concerns—often mixed with idealistic pastoral notions about how people in the developing world should live—have led many in government and in the environmental and international development communities to block real progress on this issue.

Some argue that as the poor develop, they can leapfrog past the fossil fuels that power our own lives and go straight to solar panels, even though solar would provide only modest amounts of intermittent energy. While this may be enough to meet the UN Sustainable Energy for All initiative’s definition of energy access—a level of consumption that provides for household use of a fan, two light bulbs, and a radio—solar currently has little capacity to scale up to meet the full needs of a modern society.

In a series of infographics about energy poverty, the Center for Global Development’s Todd Moss demonstrates the tradeoff between true energy access and a strict focus on renewable energy sources, showing that if one US agency invested in natural gas rather than renewables, more than 60 million additional people in Africa would have access to electricity. He also illustrates the hypocrisy of limiting US policy and financial support in developing economies for the very energy sources we Americans use the most.

I understand from my childhood the discomfort many have with modernity, and their well-intentioned desire to protect the planet and the global poor from its excesses. Yet I also recognize that even as my family chose to live more simply, we still benefitted from the centralized energy-intensive infrastructure of modern life, such as plumbing, roads, schools, and hospitals—infrastructure that requires magnitudes of energy more than solar and wind power will be able to provide any time soon.

We in the developed world are extraordinarily fortunate to have abundant, reliable, affordable energy at our disposal. We should not take this good fortune for granted, nor deny it to others who aspire to the standard of living we so enjoy.

It is time to begin a robust conversation in the social sector on squaring our concern about global poverty with our concern about climate change. Ending poverty will require massive amounts of energy, and I believe it is possible to meet the energy demands of seven to nine billion people living modern lives without destroying the planet. But we won’t get there without a fundamentally new approach to these issues.

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  • Emily Church's avatar

    BY Emily Church

    ON March 20, 2014 09:05 PM

  • scott medwid's avatar

    BY scott medwid

    ON March 20, 2014 09:46 PM

    We need more energy world wide.  We need fossil fuel free energy generation A.S.A.P. China has committed to building Thorium cycle Molten Salt Reactors by 2024.  They are cutting the old development schedule by 15 years.  I feel that it may be possible that China will sell Rare Earth Element consuming Solar and Wind technology to the Developed West while they collect the thorium waste from the refining process for extracting R.E.E.s from the ore.  They will profit from the sale of renewable systems, collect thorium, invest their research dollars and engineers’ time into the development of modern reactor systems.  China leadership may be positioning for a leading roll in solving the energy crisis and the climate crisis. 
    See more on thorium at hit the “Th” tab and see the newest films in this iconic series.
    A good video on why the electric washing machine access for every family world wide will improve life for everyone on Earth can be seen on YouTube: search “Hans Rosling and washing machines”

  • Nicholas Oyoo's avatar

    BY Nicholas Oyoo

    ON April 4, 2014 02:36 AM

    Hi Rachel,

    I’m Nicholas Oyoo from Kenya. I came across your article and i hope you can help me out with a small matter. 

    I really do not know who to turn to and there is a huge need in the world for what I’m about to request you to assist me over.

    For a long time I have wondered about a different kind of energy. Recently, I realized that the technology that I believe has the capacity to finally offer the world the most efficient generation of electricity from another source actually exists and all that is left
    is to redirect this technology and carry out laboratory tests to confirm this fact.

    What I need help with is someone to partner with me in this journey. I do not have the funds and neither do I have the technical know-how to handle this complex operation. I will offer some equity for the partnership and shared ownership of the patent. I also want my country to be partly recognized for the technology.

    I know you know people who can fund such kind of research, hire the right people with the right domain expertise to carry out this project to a logical conclusion and if am right it will not be long before we declare the innovation. Of course being that this is a readjustment from the existing technology and carries with it considerable risk of
    not working out.

    If we can agree then the next step will be that we sign a MoU and non-disclosure agreement. Then I will be ready to reveal my idea and together we can begin to work on the idea. I wish to inform you that I’m only but a thinker and very illiterate on the field in question. But I have harbored this innovation since I was a kid and the latest
    developments seem to bare me out.  I acknowledge that such funding will be in kind and my role will be to table the idea and together we will assess what will be needed to test the innovation. It is only then that figures can be clearer.

    If in Kenya I would get help I would have gone to get this help but I know that this will only delay research into this technology and delay the world from getting it’s potentially most efficient green energy from being realized.

    I look forward to hear from you. My email is .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

  • andrew dahl's avatar

    BY andrew dahl

    ON February 17, 2016 06:19 PM

    did you grow up on a goat farm or in Chicago?

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