Roger Pielke Jr on climate action advocates who forget about energy poverty

Of course not all mitigation advocates forget about the poor, but there truly is a strong tendency for the FOE and Greenpeace crowd to focus on the “feel good” activities rich countries can afford. Sadly that activism typically ignores the “elephant in the room” of emissions growth by China, India, Brazil, etc. 

Further, the “feel good” activism relegates the energy-poor to stay just where they are – miserable. Roger covers this issue in some depth in his post Against “Modern Energy Access”. I just want to highlight one elegant graphic that Roger produced from IEA data:

When ‘energy access’ is used by organizations like the IEA, they mean something very different than what you, I or my students might take the term to mean in common parlance. (And note, this is no critique of the IEA, they have done excellent work on energy access issues.) The graph above provides a comparison of the 500 kWh per year household threshold for ‘energy access’ used by the IEA to a comparable number for the United States (both numbers are expressed in per capita terms, so 100 kWh per person from IEA and data on US household electricity consumption here and people per household here).

A goal to secure 1.3 billion people access to 2.2% of the electricity that the average American uses might be characterized as a initial start to more ambitious goals, but it is not a stopping point (and again, IEA recognizes that energy access is a process, but this gets lost in broader discussions).

We do not label those who live on $1 per day as having ‘economic access’ — rather they are desperately poor, living just above the poverty line. Everyone understands that $1 a day is not much. Very few people get that 100 kWh per year is a pitifully small amount of energy. Therefore, I suggest that we start talking in terms of  ‘energy poverty’ measured as a percentage of the average American (or European or Japanese or Australian or whatever energy rich context youd prefer as a baseline, the results will be qualitatively the same). To use the IEA numbers, one would be in ‘energy poverty’ with access to less than 2% of the energy access enjoyed by those in the rich world.

It is bad enough that the energy poor are largely ignored in our rich world debates over issues like climate change. It is perhaps even worse that our ‘success stories’ often mean creating scenarios where the energy poor attain just 2% of the access to energy that we enjoy on a daily basis. The frustrating irony of course is that the issues that rich world environmentalists most seem to care about might be best addressed by putting energy poverty first, but that is a subject for another time.

Do read the whole essay. And if you’ve not already read the Climate Fix I can’t recommend it highly enough. Unless you just want to feel good. As I wrote last April in A Primer on How to Avoid Magical Solutions in Climate Policy, “Kyoto is not one of these policies”.