Solving Energy Poverty Doesn’t Mean Compromising Climate

Boosting household energy access has a minimal direct impact on climate change, according to a new paper that argues ending poverty should be the top short-term priority for poor countries.

The study published in the journal Nature Climate Change is among the first empirical studies to measure how a vast improvement in electrification—in this case, in India—contributed to greenhouse gas emissions levels.

The findings could create a snarl in the efforts of environmental groups who say renewable energy should be the key, if not only, tool to bringing modern electricity services to the 1.5 billion people worldwide living in darkness.

With few quantified studies available to see just how high emissions grow when poor communities gain electricity, author Shonali Pachauri (a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria ) said she set out to find hard numbers. She did so in India, where more than 400 million people still live without electricity.

Pachauri found two key data sets were available: national numbers showing how much electricity had improved and nationally representative household surveys going back to 1983 that included information about whether the family had access to energy and, if so, how much electricity each household consumes.

Crunching those numbers, she found that improvements in household energy access bumped up national emissions just 3.4 percent. That, she said, is largely because even as rates of electrification rose, consumption remained generally low.

“There is certainly a rich minority that is using a lot of electricity, but for the majority of largely poor households, they still consume very, very low amounts of electricity,” Pachauri said.

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