Energy, poverty and development

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As Hans Rosling illustrated, the richest billion people use half the world's energy (and produce roughly half the world's greenhouse gas emissions) whilst the remaining 6 billion share the rest[1]:

Energy use by income group in 2010 (from Hans Rosling's TED talk

Rosling projects that as the world's 2 billion poorest citizens escape absolute poverty (which will have the happy by-product of birthrates dropping to sustainable levels), and as the standard of living of the world's poorer people generally improves, with many rising to the standards we in the top billion currently enjoy, world energy consumption will almost double:

Projected world energy use by income group in 2050 (from Hans Rosling's TED talk)

A recent example of this progress is found in China which, between 1981 and 2005, raised over 600 million people from poverty[2]. The poverty rate dropped from 85% to 16% whilst infant mortality rate fell from 2100 to 770 deaths per day. However energy consumption quadrupled.

Energy conservation, energy austerity, poverty and development

The wealthiest 1 billion of us can and should use energy more frugally, both through personal changes – for example having fewer children, eating less energy-intensive foods, reducing superfluous travel and wasteful uses of heating and cooling – and improvements in efficiency of appliances, vehicles, buildings, modes of transport etc. However for us privileged few to attempt to suppress the aspirations of the world's poorer citizens to escape from poverty and improve their standards of living is problematic, both morally and physically. There is simply not much we can do about it if we wanted to, even if we thought we had the right to do so.

China energy mix -- WP.png
India energy mix -- WP.png


On past experience, for example that of China[3] and India[4], most demand for energy will be met by coal. China and India have well-developed nuclear, solar, wind and hydroelectric as well as coal industries so the predominance of coal doesn't indicate that they lack cleaner alternatives, simply that coal is the cheapest energy source.

More than half the world's population live in absolute and relative poverty: for these people the struggle to survive undoubtedly outweighs concerns about the sustainability of energy sources they have little access to. Those of us amongst the billion richest citizens of the world have the luxury of worrying about the sustainability and security of our privileged lifestyles, and the ability and responsibility for doing something about it. We are wealthy enough that we could afford more expensive cleaner sources of energy, a route Germany, Denmark and California have pursued (albeit without great success in reducing the carbon intensity of their electricity production, and at the expense of their poorer citizens, resulting in greater inequality in their societies). But making energy more expensive for the poorest billions of the world is not only morally unjustified but counter-productive to eliminating absolute poverty and stabilising the world population.

Thus whilst measures like carbon taxes (or effective cap and trade schemes) can help favour a shift to more sustainable but more expensive energy in richer, developing and developed economies, what is ideally needed are sustainable energy sources that are cheaper than coal, so that developing economies don't even start using fossil fuels which they later have to shift away from. This challenge is one which technologically sophisticated developed nations should be well placed to meet (and arguably would have done decades ago barring political and vested-interest opposition).

Footnotes and references

  1. "Why The Washing Machine Was The Greatest Invention Of The Industrial Revolution", Christina Sterbenz, Business Insider, 30 Jan 2014
  2. "Getting Real About Energy in Cubic Miles of Oil", Ripudaman Malhotra, A Cubic Mile Of Oil blog
  3. "Electricity sector in China", Wikipedia
  4. "Electricity sector in India", Wikipedia