Politics of Poverty

Two for one: Renewables can address energy poverty AND climate change

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Karfa Mane begins to prepare rice for supper - with her granddaughter secured to her back - in the kitchen area of her home in Sare Dembara, Senegal. Photo: Holly Pickett / Oxfam America

It’s possible to expand energy access and alleviate poverty, without exacerbating climate change impacts, which poor communities experience first and worst.

Energy poverty poses an enormous challenge to development. Roughly 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa  alone live without consistent, predictable access to electricity. Greater access to electricity not only provides a more stable environment for business growth and economic development, but also means that children can do their schoolwork at night, families can receive more effective care at hospitals and health clinics, agriculture can benefit from improved irrigation systems, and refrigeration can be available for life-saving vaccines.

Energy poverty has come to the fore in the context of President Obama’s Power Africa Initiative and discussions around complementary legislation, the Electrify Africa Act. These goals force hard questions about providing energy to those without it, while respecting planetary boundaries.

Expanding energy access and alleviating poverty without exacerbating climate change impacts, which poor communities experience first and worst.

This isn’t a new concept. Article 4.7 is my favorite clause in the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (yes, I have a favorite clause – what’s yours?), which specifically situates developing country priorities of eradicating poverty in the context of climate change, and which has been reiterated lately by World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and thousands of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientists.

Renewables can win on climate, AND they can win on energy access needs. Here’s why:

Energy access for whom?

Roughly 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa live without access to energy, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). They predominantly live in rural areas beyond the reach of the conventional, centralized electricity grid. Meeting their electricity needs requires either extending the grid—a costly effort that could take years to complete—or moving forward with decentralized options, like some of the innovative mini-grid and off-grid solutions popping up across Africa. In the IEA’s most recent World Energy Outlook, 65% of global energy access needs could come from renewables like wind, solar, geothermal, and mini-hydro. On the access front, renewables for the win.

Of course Africa also has a need for centralized electricity sources that can provide consistent, predictable and affordable electricity for industrial and business development purposes. But there is ample evidence from large-scale hydro power projects, for example, demonstrating that the energy provided is not, in fact, “trickling down” to the poorest segments of the population as promised. Whether on-grid or off-grid, the metrics used to measure reductions in energy poverty need to be more granular and sophisticated than a simple calculation of Megawatts of generation capacity, and should include, for example, low income households connected, quality of supply to low income households, etc.

Electrifying ourselves requires a carbon focus

To inform the energy choices between fossil fuels and renewables, we first need to accurately place into context the looming threat above our heads: avoiding catastrophic climate change and the limited carbon budget in play. The recent IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) highlighted in stunning detail the impacts that a changing climate is already having on coastal communities, access to water, and food production. (See Oxfam’s takeaways from the AR5 that speak to this a bit more.) The IEA and others have agreed that at least two-thirds of all fossil fuel reserves need to remain unexploited if we are to stay below the 2° C target to avoid the most devastating climate change impacts. Investment in fossil fuels, regardless of their energy access potential, will only exacerbate this limited carbon space.

But right now fossil fuels currently receive roughly six times the subsidies than renewables. Hardly a fair fight given everything else renewables have going for them. An urgent shift, or at the very least some initial rebalancing of this skewed playing field, is surely among the first steps we need to take. An IPCC report released Sunday said that to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, annual investment in electrical power plants that use fossil fuels will need to decline by about 20 percent in the coming two decades, while investment in low-carbon energy will need to double from current levels.

Some of the fossils, some of the time, for now…

Oxfam respects a nation’s right to develop its own resources as it sees fit. We said as much to Congress recently. There are two important caveats to this: 1) if some fossil fuels are to be developed in the short term, the process can’t cause social or environmental harms, and 2) fossil fuels should only be developed when there is a clearly demonstrated public interest, superior to all the available alternatives, that indeed serves the poorest and does not compromise overall development goals.

There’s a lot to unpack in those two caveats, which I will address in subsequent posts about why renewables are a smarter choice for providing much needed energy access and addressing critical economic, political, and development considerations. Of course, we in the industrialized world cannot continue to exploit fossil fuels with what appears to be reckless abandon. Responsibility for emissions reductions must fall on the shoulders of developed nations given our ‘differentiated responsibility and respective capability’ to do so. (Wait for it. I said subsequent posts!) We must push for leadership in supporting innovative, low-carbon strategies to meet the needs of those living in energy poverty—strategies that can set developing countries on a more equitable energy path than the one we ourselves in the United States have followed.

For now, I’ll leave you with this: there’s no time to waste. We need to invest in renewables at a more rapid pace globally if we are to stick to our limited carbon budget, and expand energy access.

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