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‘Energy requirements to lead a decent life in developing nations are modest compared to US use — we need a new paradigm on equity’

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Narasimha D Rao teaches at Yale University. Speaking to Srijana Mitra Das, he discusses how poverty eradication could help reduce energy needs and enable sustainable growth in developing economies:

Q. What is the core of your new research study titled ‘Decent Living Energy’?

A. My research seeks to understand how eradicating poverty would impact energy growth and climate change in developing countries. We’ve studied how much energy nations need in order to to provide everyone with a basic living standard. For this, we looked at different components of a decent living standard, including clothing, shelter, nutrition, household water supply, sanitation, electricity, refrigeration and internet, alongside education and access to motorised transport, so people can get to jobs and sell products in markets. We’ve defined all these amenities as poverty eradication, and not just consuming a certain amount of calories a day.

All these components together produce a minimum standard of living for people. This standard supports the fulfillment of people’s needs for good health and social participation. We’ve fou nd t he most energy-intensive service in this context was transport — healthcare, education, providing potable water, etc., were small compared to this. This is partly as shared resources are a lot less energy intensive per person compared to private resources. Therefore, in India, strategies like building more public transport such as metros will significantly reduce energy needs, bring down air pollution and serve low-income communities as well. Public transport has the most important synergy between climate goals and development needs.

Q. How much energy does your definition of a decent life require?

A. We’ve taken a generous view of a decent life and still, the energy requirements in developing nations are modest at about one-tenth of the energy the US uses. We’ve found a range of 15 to 40 gigajoules of energy per capita is required to meet basic living standards — US usage is over 200 per capita. The lower end of this range tends to be developing countries while the upper end tends to be cold countries which need more heating and are more car-dependent. Energy needs in such cold countries are double those in developing countries — but even in industrialised countries, the energy need for a basic minimum standard is well below the average energy use. In the US, the need is 30 to 40 gigajoules, as compared to the 200 actually used.

Q. How will the surge in demand for air conditioning in the West, impacted by heatwaves and climate change, now alter these energy dynamics?

A. Residential cooling requirements is one challenge posed by the heatwaves, the others being wildfires, droughts and water crises. The heatwaves are a historical phenomenon and the advent of ACs in residential homes has driven US electricity demand to a peak. But many low-income groups in inner cities can’t afford cooling, so there is an equity issue around managing climate change. There are other imbalances — we’re seeing exceptional usage in large suburban residence swit h central air-conditioning overcooling homes. One solution is for a utility to remotely manage residential AC thermostats via homeowners’ assenting to smart meters, etc. In parts of California, homes are already programmed for the utility to remotely maintain an ideal temperature. This reduces overall electricity demand and is one sustainable strategy to manage the climate-related energy situation.

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Q. Why is there relatively little global discussion of energy equity, given its importance for developing economies?

A. This is an extremely important issue. Several NGOs are trying to bring equity into the international discussion. But, in the US, the effort currently is towards trying to ensure energy equity among communities within America — the Biden government has brought forth a major initiative to direct federal investments into energy transitions towards disadvantaged communities. Internationally, some industrialised countries don’t want to deal with their historical climate and energy responsibilities. Trying to reach net zero is an enormous challenge — if they consider the energy needs of poverty eradication in India or Africa, that would mean agreeing to net negative commitments. Another complication is that rapidly changing transition technology can seem more affordable to all. But that is a misnomer. Decarbonising in developing countries remains a very big challenge

We need a new paradigm of thinking about equity. A key solution is industrialised countries taking the lead on transition technology development. We need significant investment in market leaders and in quality leadership in industrialised countries to make this technology truly affordable worldwide. We also need closer R&D for industries embedded in the use of fossil fuels, including steel, plastic, fertilisers, etc. These are the difficult sectors for energy transition. Addressing energy equity remains an uphill task. Having said that, our research has found important steps developing economies can themselves take to address energy efficiency and have more sustainable growth.

Views expressed are personal

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