Poor Countries Need Relief From Climate Change. They Need Electricity More

A woman in India gathering dried cow-dung cakes, a major source of domestic fuel for rural households Photograph by Diptendu Dutta/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, environmental campaigners walked out en masse from the U.N. climate talks taking place in Warsaw. The conference hadn’t been shaping up to be a great success: During the meetings, Japan announced that, rather than cutting its greenhouse gas emissions by one-quarter below 1990 levels, it would actually increase them by 3 percent, largely because of the country’s decision to end its nuclear program.

Campaigners pointed out that those with the most to lose from the failure of the climate talks are the world’s poorest people—certain to suffer the greatest impact of the floods, droughts, and rising temperatures that climate change is bringing. At the same time, the world’s poorest people are also those with the lowest access to modern sources of energy such as electricity and natural gas. In order to foster economic growth and improvements in health, developing countries will need to generate huge amounts of additional power. How to achieve considerable reductions in carbon dioxide at a time of massive increases in global energy consumption is of the most complex—and urgent—challenges facing policymakers in the developed world.

Some 1.3 billion people around the planet lack access to electricity, and twice that number still use such fuels as wood, dung, or coal for household cooking and heating.  That has a dismal impact on quality of life: Working under kerosene light is the health equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. A recent report by the nonprofit group DARA (PDF) suggested that 3.1 million people died from the effects of indoor air pollution in 2010—and that on current trends, indoor air pollution will be killing five times as many people in 2030 as will die that year from the effects of greenhouse gas emissions.

Expanding modern energy in the developing world would boost public health. It’s also vital to increased productivity and better jobs. Consider China: Over the last 20 years, the growth in well-paying manufacturing jobs in China is responsible for the most rapid decline in global poverty ever witnessed. The number employed in manufacturing in China has climbed from 86 million to 99 million from 2002 to 2009, while average hourly compensation increased from 60¢ to $1.74.

Good manufacturing jobs take electricity. You can’t run modern factories without power for machines and lighting. Even the weightless economy takes electricity: Call centers and medical transcription services require power for computers, servers, and communications networks. Meanwhile, surveys of manufacturing companies in Sub-Saharan Africa report that over one-fifth of respondents rank electricity access as the biggest obstacle they face in doing business; that’s the most popular answer overall, ahead of access to finance and way ahead of such concerns as tax rates or corruption.

From a development standpoint, electricity consumption in Africa is depressingly low. The total in Ethiopia—for everything from industry to agriculture to street lighting and powering lamps and TVs at home—is 52 kilowatt hours per person a year. That’s about one-ninth what it takes to run a refrigerator for a year, according to Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development.

What counts as “enough” electricity consumption to underpin a high quality of life? The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that the average U.S. household uses 52 kwh about every three days. The U.S. consumed about 13,250 kwh of electricity per person in 2011, according to the World Bank. Americans are profligate electricity users, but even the relatively constrained Danes consumed 6,120 kwh per person. Let’s assume—using heroic optimism rather than any precedent—that with greater energy efficiency, countries could enjoy Danish standards of living with less than one-half the electricity use: 3,000 kwh per capita.

As it happens, that’s roughly current global average consumption. But because use is incredibly skewed, the considerable majority of the world’s countries will have to increase their consumption to meet a 3,000 kwh goal. At current population levels, Sub-Saharan Africa will have to increase its consumption almost sixfold. South Asia will have to increase use about fivefold. Just for those two regions, that amounts to over 6,000 terawatt hours more electricity—that’s 62 times more power than produced by the world’s largest electricity source, the Three Gorges Dam in China. It is more than 247 times the output of the world’s largest non-hydro facility, the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Power Plant in Japan.

Which leads to the question: Where is all that power going to come from? While the average price of electricity over the lifetime of a solar power project fell from 32¢ per kilowatt hour in 2009 to 17¢ in early 2012, only in exceptional cases has solar reached ‘grid parity’ with conventional plants. The lifetime cost per kwh of a gas-fired power plant, meanwhile, is about 46 percent of the costs of a solar plant. Across Africa, countries are finding abundant sources of gas: Mozambique and Tanzania recently experienced big discoveries. Should some of the poorest, least-electrified countries in the world be denied the immense economic and health benefits of electrification in the name of reducing greenhouse emissions worldwide?

The answer is no—but the story doesn’t end there. The world’s poorest countries still need to produce a lot more electricity if they are to see sustainable poverty reduction and improved health. In the short term, that means the developed world should support the rollout of the cheapest, most reliable power available to meet Africa and South Asia’s needs—even if that comes from fossil fuels. In the longer term (one hopes not much longer), it means massive investment in research, development, and subsidies so that renewables become the cheapest, most reliable source of the power poor countries require.

The trends for the cost of renewable power are moving in the right direction. For low-voltage, off-grid solutions in sunny climates, they are already the cheapest option. The growing prospects for a carbon tax in China and the rapid rollout of lower-emission, gas-fired plants in the U.S. both suggest some hope for at least a slowing in global emissions growth. Perhaps the talks at next year’s UN climate conference in Peru will set the world up for a new global treaty in 2015, with significant binding commitments on global greenhouse gas emissions. The industrialized world is responsible for precipitating the crisis of climate change. It’s still our responsibility to fix it.

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