The emissions cost of electricity for all

There’s an intriguing statement hidden away in last week’s press release accompanying the International Energy Agency report, Energy for All: financing access for the poor:

There is not necessarily any tension between achieving universal energy access, climate sustainability and energy security. Providing electricity access to those who lack it would increase carbon dioxide emissions by only 0.7%, equivalent to the annual emissions of New York State but giving electricity to a population more than 50 times the size.

These IEA reports frame a dialogue which aims to persuade global leaders to endorse a goal to end energy poverty by 2030.

This choice of words betrays fears that a dash to provide 1.3 billion people with electricity will divert precious reserves of fossil fuels and crank up global warming. Poverty is so inconvenient!

It’s worth taking a look at just how the IEA managed to produce such an improbable but reassuringly low figure of 0.7%, designed to calm all that tension.

Firstly, the Agency is suggesting an initial energy poverty line of just 250 kilowatt‐hours (kWh) per household per year for rural households. This threshold provides little more than very basic lighting for two rooms. Pragmatic, and of great value to poor families, but not exactly redressing the global divide.

By comparison, the average annual household consumption in 27 European Union countries in 2008 was just under 18,000 kWh.

Secondly, the IEA bases all calculations on the additional requirement for electricity over and above its “cautious” quantification of existing national government policies and promises. Setting aside the dubious value of political promises for the next year, let alone to 2030, this approach has the effect of reducing the need, cost and consequences of providing universal access.

In the context of greenhouse gas emissions, most existing government plans focus on extending the coverage offered by urban grids which by nature are powered by fossil fuels. The IEA method avoids counting these emissions. The additional off-grid connections will depend largely on renewables.

The energy divide also concerns those who currently have a connection but lack the means to exploit it with modern household appliances. This is where the real latent growth in emissions lies and where tensions are found.

China is already close to universal coverage but is expected to treble its 2006 output of electricity by 2030, much of it with coal. South Africa is in a similar position and was the source of the controversial 2010 World Bank decision to finance the huge Eskom coal-fired power station.

It is these countries which are stalling the Bank’s energy policy review which has sided with NGO calls to abandon its support for coal. The developing world holds the trump card of the comparison of per capita consumption of electricity between rich and not so rich countries.

I can’t see a way out of this impasse, perhaps an unintended outcome of NGO enthusiasm for greater democracy in World Bank decision-making.

It’s strange that the IEA press release should highlight this comparison via the New York figures. The unfortunate implication is that the division between rich and poor will be just as extreme in 2030.

All that talk in climate negotiations of reserving a fair share of atmospheric space for the poorest countries looks very much like hot air.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK