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The Other 1.6 Billion

by Michael Levi
April 30, 2010

As (some) Americans focus their attention on addressing climate change and energy security, it’s easy to forget that a quarter of the world (about 1.6 billion people) have absolutely no access to electricity. That situation undermines pretty much every aspect of development, from health to education to personal safety. A new UN report (PDF), released today (on what organizers have called “Energy for Development Day“), admirably draws attention to the issue, and to some options for addressing it. (For a non-PDF news account, take a look here.)

This is also a good opportunity to confront the myth that there’s a fundamental tradeoff between delivering basic energy access and confronting climate change. Shoibal Chakravarty and his colleagues at Princeton addressed this in a paper (PDF) they published last summer. (The paper was much noticed, but this aspect of it was not.) They argue that providing basic energy services, even with relatively dirty fuels, would raise the emissions of those who got those services to about one ton of CO2 per year. (2.7 billion people are projected to be below that threshold even in 2030.) The extra emissions from raising those people to a basic “energy poverty line” could be offset by a very small additional reduction in emissions from the world’s wealthiest people (about a 10% per person for the top billion emitters in 2030). That would seem to be the right thing to do.

Once people move beyond basic energy services to middle class energy demand (cars, etc), the story changes, and we’ll ultimately need cleaner technology to solve that problem. But for the foreseeable future, some things should be simple: if we can find a way to deliver energy to the very poorest people in the world, we should do it, regardless of its carbon cost.

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  • Posted by Herb Gart

    I agree but it reminds me of an argument I had with Pete Seeger. He was complaining about the build-up of the country into suburbs. A few minutes later he was complaining about the poor state of roads in the country. Repair the roads and you invite a further build-up. Sometimes the worst solution works better than the best solution.

    [ML: Well put!]

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