The United Nations has set two huge energy-related goals for the
coming century. The first is to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion
people who still don’t have it. The second is to curtail fossil fuel
use and keep global warming below 2C.
Those are daunting goals.
They’re also in somewhat awkward tension with each other. The first
requires increasing the amount of energy the world uses, including
fossil fuels. The second requires harnessing cleaner power sources,
using energy more efficiently, and even conserving power. So is it
possible to do both at once?
The U.N. certainly thinks so. Last
year, Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon unveiled his “Sustainable Energy
for All” initiative, which aims to bring electricity to 1.3 billion
people by 2030, and double the amount of renewable energy in the
world, and double the pace at which the world gets more
energy-efficient. The estimated price tag? Some $48 billion per
year, financed by the private sector, governments and the public
In theory, assuming this plan was doable, it could be compatible
with those broader climate goals. At least, that’s the conclusion of
a recent study in Nature Climate Change, which found the world would
still have a good chance of staying below 2°C if it achieved all
three of these goals by 2030. (But, the modelers caution, those
three goals wouldn’t be sufficient; limits on carbon emissions would
likely also prove necessary. See Alex Kirby’s write-up for more
That would certainly be a major boon for many poorer
countries. Over at Dot Earth, Andrew Revkin has an important post
exploring how energy poverty has left nearly 1 billion people
without access to adequate health care. Not only that, but about 291
million children currently attend primary schools that lack
electricity. To get a visual sense for what that’s like, check out
the photo on the right of students in Conakry, Guinea who are
studying under carpark lights.
That said, other experts are skeptical that tackling climate change
and energy poverty at once is as easy as it sounds. Roger Pielke
Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of
Colorado, has pointed out that the international community’s
definition of “modern energy access” tends to be pitiful — it means
providing people with a mere 2.2 percent of the energy that the
average American uses.
Why does that matter? Because, as Pielke writes in a follow-up essay
for the Breakthrough Institute, tackling climate change would be
much, much harder if the goal was to provide everyone with as much
energy as, say, the average Bulgarian currently uses.
The red line at the bottom shows how much energy the world
consumes today, about 500 quadrillion BTUs. The next line up shows
the Energy Information Agency’s projections for how much energy the
world will use in 2035, about 800 quads. We’re already living in a
world in which energy use is growing fast and it’s difficult to
tackle climate change. But the lines above it show how much harder
the task would get if the average person in the world used as much
energy as Bulgarians do, or Germans do, or Americans do.
Pielke offers this way of looking at the problem. If we want to
limit the amount of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere and stay below
2°C, we’ll have to replace about 80 percent of our current
fossil-fuel use with carbon-free energy and then use only
carbon-free energy to meet our future needs. That’s hard enough. But
if we want everyone in the world to have as much access to energy as
the average Bulgarian enjoys, then we’ll need twice as much
carbon-free power. And so on.
Now, that hardly means it’s impossible for the world to tackle both
climate change and energy poverty. But the two goals can be in
tension with each other. Getting more ambitious on one puts a lot
more pressure on the other.