Energy poverty and clean technology

For the past three years, I’ve team-taught a class that’s part of our Institute for Energy and Sustainability at Northwestern (ISEN) curriculum. It’s an introductory class, primarily focused on ethics and philosophy. One of my earth science colleagues kicks us off with the carbon cycle, the evidence for anthropogenic global warming, and interpretations of that evidence. Then one of my philosophy colleagues presents moral theories that we can use to think about the morality of our relationship with nature, environmental ethics, moral obligations to future generations, and so on. Consequentialism, Kantian ethics, virtue ethics. I learn so much from my colleagues every time!

Then I, the social scientist, come in and throw cold water on everyone’s utopias and dystopias — “no, really, this is how people really are going to behave, and the likely outcomes we’ll see from political processes.” Basic economic principles (scarcity, opportunity cost, tradeoffs, incentives, property rights, intertemporal substitution, discounting), tied in with the philosophical foundations of these principles, and then used to generate an economic analysis of politics (i.e., public choice). We finish up with a discussion of technological dynamism and the role that human creativity and innovation can play in making the balance of economic well-being and environmental sustainability more aligned and harmonious.

Energy poverty emerges as an overarching theme in the course — long-term environmental sustainability is an important issue to bear in mind when we think about consumption, investment, and innovation actions we take in the near term … but so are living standards, human health, and longevity. If people in developing countries have the basic human right to the liberty to flourish and to improve their living standards, then energy use is part of that process.

Thus when I saw this post from Bill Gates on the Gates Foundation blog it caught my attention, particularly where he says succinctly that

But even as we push to get serious about confronting climate change, we should not try to solve the problem on the backs of the poor. For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.

Instead of putting constraints on poor countries that will hold back their ability to fight poverty, we should be investing dramatically more money in R&D to make fossil fuels cleaner and make clean energy cheaper than any fossil fuel.


In it Gates highlights two short videos from Bjorn Lomborg that emphasize two things: enabling people in poverty to get out of poverty using inexpensive natural gas rather than expensive renewables will improve the lives of many millions more people, and innovation and new ideas are the processes through which we will drive down the costs of currently-expensive clean energy. The first video makes the R&D claim and offers some useful data for contextualizing the extent of energy poverty in Africa. The second video points out that 3 billion people burn dung and twigs inside their homes as fuel sources, and that access to modern energy (i.e., electricity) would improve their health conditions.

The post and videos are worth your time. I would add one logical step in the chain, to make the economics-sustainability alignment point even more explicit — the argument that environmental quality is a normal good, and that as people leave poverty and their incomes rise, at the margin they will shift toward consumption bundles that include more environmental quality. At lower income increases there may still be incrementally more emissions (offset by the reduction in emissions from dung fires in the home), but if environmental quality is a normal good, as incomes continue to rise, consumption bundles will shift. If you know the economics literature on the environmental Kuznets curve, this argument sounds familiar. One of the best summary articles on the EKC is David Stern (2004), and he shows that there is little statistical evidence for a simple EKC, although better models have been developed and if we tell a more nuanced story and use better statistical techniques we may be able to decompose all of the effects.

Gates is paying more attention to energy because he thinks the anti-poverty agenda should include a focus on affordable energy, and energy that’s cleaner than what’s currently being used indoors for cooking in many places.


2 thoughts on “Energy poverty and clean technology

  1. I would add heating to that. In China, the vast majority of people heat their dwellings with charcoal heaters. Most dwellings are poorly ventilated so you have hundreds of million of human beings breathing coal dust and fumes for a lifetime with its concomitant health effects. There are also several tens of thousands of needless deaths per annum from CO inhalation in these same poorly ventilated dwellings.

  2. On the same issue did you see the article linked below?

    It makes very good points on the relative cost-effectiveness of off-grid generators vs grid connection, under specific site-related conditions. In particular what really matters is how far disconnected houses are from the nearest power line. It sounds obvious but if you read stuff on energy poverty and renewables it’s much less so.

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