Slow climate change or end energy poverty? Let's do both.

The goal of curbing global greenhouse gas emissions can sometimes appear at odds with efforts to expand electricity access to the 1.3 billion around the world without it. But it is feasible to make progress on both fronts, write Goolman and Nicholson, so long as policymakers aim high. 

Amit Dave/Reuters/File
A security guard walks between rows of photovoltaic solar panels in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

The United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aim to address two energy-related challenges: energy access and global climate change. Improving a countries quality of life and economic standards requires access to reliable and cheap energy—access that 1.3 billion people around the world still don’t have and energy consumption that is the main driver of global climate change.

Unfortunately, the proposed SDGs fall short and require changes to advance meaningful solutions to both cut carbon and eliminate energy poverty.

The SDGs are the successor to the Millennial Development Goals (MDGs), have been the penultimate development markers for low-income countries and expire at the end of 2015. While the MDGs and SDGs are both aspirational in theory, in practice the SDGs will drive global development investment towards key sustainability issues for the next 15 years. In other words, we need to get this strategy right.

Unfortunately, the SDGs fall short in two ways: defining modern energy access and disincentivizing energy innovation.

Defining modern energy access

The UN Open Working Group recently released the SDG’s 17 goals and tentative metrics for discussion. Goal 7 states, “Ensure access to affordable, sustainable, and reliable, modern energy services for all.” But before the international community can set tangible targets for meeting this goal, it needs to address the critical issue on how to define, “modern energy access.”

Currently, there is no universally accepted definition for energy access, but the International Energy Agency (IEA) measures modern energy access as 100 kilowatt hours (kWh) per person per year. As Todd Moss, senior fellow with the Center for Global Development, points out, the average American consumes 100 kWh in just three days, and people in more energy efficient European States use this same amount in five days.

A report by the Center for Clean Energy Innovation, Beyond 2015: An Innovation-Based Framework for Global Climate Policy, further illustrates this deficiency by explaining that it takes over 500 kWh to keep one 60-watt light bulb lit for a year, whereas 100 kWh is about enough electricity to power a few light bulbs and a fan for a couple hours a day.

In other words, the international community’s definition of access is woefully short of the type of energy consumption high-income countries use on a daily basis. Of course, creating universal energy access at any level above zero would be a momentous step in global development, but if we are setting the bar at 100 kWh, we are restricting ourselves from the start and potentially dooming the SDG goals from the start.

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By extension, the technology solutions for improving energy access will only be as powerful as the goal; so limiting the goal will produce limited solutions. If we aim higher—say, the equivalent of a household with access to refrigeration, heating, cooling, and lighting in an energy-efficient, developed country—there is greater incentive to develop solutions with truly transformative potential. If we aim lower—say, the equivalent of a household with access to one light bulb—we’re more likely to get limited solutions.

What would be considered a just measure of “modern energy access”? A fairer level would be a number closer to that of the per capita energy consumption of efficient high-income countries, such as Germany (7,081 kWh) or Japan (7,848 kWh). These are two countries in the forefront as leaders for sustainable energy consumption with nation-wide initiatives that promote renewables resources and energy technology innovation.

Improving energy access with innovation

To ensure that a higher energy access target is also affordable, reliable, and low-carbon, the SDGs must address energy innovation. Cheap low-carbon energy with the potential to scale and provide high levels of energy access is required to compete with fossil fuels without the crutch of subsidies, so that national governments don’t need to choose between industrializing cleanly or industrializing cheaply. Countries will be able to eliminate fossil fuel consumption or solve their energy poverty issues when it makes economic sense.

Unfortunately, low-carbon energy system research, development and demonstration (RD&D) is grossly underfunded. The Global Commission on the Economy and Climate stressed that, “To help create the next wave of resource-efficient, low-carbon technologies, public research and development (R&D) investment in the energy sector should triple to well over US $100 billion a year by the mid-2020s.” Global investments in low-carbon RD&D currently top out around $20-25 billion per year.

To address this global innovation gap and aspire to higher modern energy access goals, the SDGs should include under Goal 7 a new low-carbon RD&D target (as a percentage of GDP), which countries should invest annually.

There is an old saying that goes, “Reach for the moon…and if you fall short, you’ll land among the stars.” This is how we need to think about the SDGs, climate change, and modern energy access.

Megan Nicholson is a policy analyst with the Center for Clean Energy Innovation, a Washington-based think tank that designs and advocates for policies that promote clean energy innovation. Kara Goolman is an intern at CCEI.  

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