Many argue that, although we have to address the climate emergency, we also have a responsibility to bring billions of people out of poverty. In order to do that, you need energy, which most often comes from greenhouse gas-emitting fossil fuels. But are the two goals really at odds? A new study suggests that the energy requirements for basic needs are not really that great — in fact, they’re well below the average global energy use per capita.
“People have long worried that economic development and climate mitigation aren’t compatible – that the growth required to bring billions of people out of poverty would make it impossible to reduce net emissions to zero – which is a requirement for climate stabilization. Until now, the research community however had no way to separate out the energy needs for eradicating poverty from countries’ overall demand growth. Without this, vast inequalities and unsustainable consumption patterns in developing countries were being ignored,” explains study lead author Narasimha Rao, a researcher in the IIASA Energy Program.
Rao and colleagues at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) set out to find out whether eradicating poverty truly runs counter to stabilizing climate change. To this end, they studied the material requirements underpinning basic human needs in three developing countries: Brazil, India, and South Africa.
Unlike previous methods, the researchers focused on energy demand from basic services rather than from economic growth. This way, the energy required to lift a population out of poverty is separated from that for affluence.
The results show that eradicating poverty in all three countries surprisingly requires energy that is well below their current national energy use and even well below the average global energy use per capita. The least taxing basic services energy-wise are health and education, while the more energy-intensive requirements are for physical infrastructure, transit, and buildings. Furthermore, the energy requirements for decent living standards can be reduced if a country provides affordable public transit and employs local materials for construction works.
“We didn’t expect that the energy needs for a minimally decent life would be so modest, even for countries like India where large gaps exist. It was also a pleasant surprise that the most essential human needs related to health, nutrition, and education, are cheap in terms of energy. Along the way, we also found that measuring poverty in terms of these material deprivations far exceeds the World Bank’s definition of income poverty,” Rao said in a statement.
This goes to show that it is possible to lift billions of people out of poverty without having to sacrifice climate goals, such as curbing emissions in order to prevent more than 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming, as stated in the Paris Agreement.
However, the findings also come with a stark warning: it is affluence that drives massive energy demand. This is of huge importance as more and more people living in developing countries transition into a middle-class lifestyle. For instance, a 2014 study found that if everyone in the world lived like the average American, we would need 3.9 planets in order to meet the need for resources.
Another important caveat is that each developing country is unique, having difference resource needs to meet the same human development goals. Due to its higher reliance on vehicles, Brazil has a high energy intensity of mobility compared to other countries. Therefore, it will face different costs and challenges to reduce emissions.
“Eradicating poverty need not stand in the way of stabilizing climate at safe levels. Our study suggests that we need to measure societal progress in terms of these multiple dimensions, not just income, and we should also pay attention to the distribution of growth in developing countries. This can point us to new ways to improve wellbeing while reducing emissions. Policymakers should give particular attention to investing in public transit, green and locally sourced buildings, and encouraging sustainable diets and food systems. These insights can inform current negotiations under the Paris agreement. Countries should take stock and step up the ambition in their pledges,” Rao concludes.
Tibi is a science journalist and co-founder of ZME Science. He writes mainly about emerging tech, physics, climate, and space. In his spare time, Tibi likes to make weird music on his computer and groom felines.