12 June 2015

The climate-poverty conundrum

Options Magazine Summer 2015: Mitigating climate change and eliminating poverty need not be conflicting targets. IIASA research aims to turn on the lights for policymakers.

© Abbie Trayler-Smith | Panos Pictures | DFID

© Abbie Trayler-Smith | Panos Pictures | DFID

Access to reliable energy sources, especially electricity, is identified by the United Nations as a key factor in lifting the world’s poorest out of poverty. But as the world grapples with greenhouse gas emissions, is there a looming conflict between fighting climate change and
reducing poverty? Recent and upcoming research by IIASA scientists will help policymakers on the front line of development and climate change to understand this complex issue.

With funding from the European Research Council (ERC) IIASA Research Scholar Narasimha D. Rao is about to embark on a project exploring the relationships between energy, poverty, and climate change.

Rao says policymakers first need to understand poverty and “rigorously articulate” what is meant by the term “decent living standards.” His project will measure a set of basic living standards “that we all can agree that everyone should be entitled to.” It’s the impact of meeting the energy requirements of those living standards that Rao believes will have strong implications for national energy polices and for the global debate on climate change.

“There is a lot of confusion about what impact on global greenhouse gases the eradication of poverty will have,” he says and adds that removing that confusion will have important ramifications for developing countries.

Electricity and emissions

Rao’s study will build on work already conducted by his colleague Shonali Pachauri, a senior energy research scholar at IIASA.

"There have been discussions along the lines of poverty alleviation and climate change in the same setting for a long time now but there is no clear answer as to how the two should be reconciled,” says Pachauri who has looked at energy developments in India over the past three decades. Her analysis shows that the number of Indian homes achieving access to electricity over that period—around 650 million people—contributed somewhere between 3% and 4% of the country’s national emissions increase. “While there are emissions associated with that electricity use, it’s still a very small fraction of the total emissions that India has,” concludes Pachauri.

The researcher is keen to emphasize that the electricity consumption needed to help people out of poverty should not be compared to that associated with an affluent lifestyle. The average Indian household consumes around 900 kilowatt hours per year—“about one-tenth or less of what is consumed in the USA today.”

There would be little debate about greenhouse gas emissions caused by connecting the world’s poor to electricity if that energy came from renewable sources. However, renewables are not going to be available or affordable in all cases.

"Of course we want to endorse renewable based generation wherever that’s possible but in all circumstances that’s not the least-cost solution,” says Pachauri, who sees countries like India with abundant coal reserves continuing to tap into them.

“One can use coal but use cleaner and more efficient systems than we have today, and that’s a big issue which needs to be tackled,” says the IIASA researcher. Along with her colleague Rao, Pachauri argues that wherever renewables are competitive then it’s best to use them “because we want to move away from a fossil‑based society eventually.”

The poverty-climate nexus

When the United Nations Climate Change Conference reconvenes in Paris in late 2015 it will provide what many observers believe is the last chance to gain some semblance of global consensus for a binding and universal agreement on climate. IIASA’s researchers are striving to ensure that the decision makers who will meet at Le Bourget bring with them an informed view of the difference between ending poverty and entering affluence.

"So that one can understand better how different types of consumption affect climate change,” says Rao.

As well as feeding into the long‑running debate between developed and developing nations over emissions reductions, this new IIASA project will help countries grappling with both
climate change and poverty issues. As an example, energy security could be improved by the right policy mix.

“A lot of developing countries import oil, and that has a big impact on their budgets; therefore you are being more self‑reliant and resilient by depending on your own energy sources, be they renewable or whatever,” says Pachauri.

As global energy policy priorities shift toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions while simultaneously providing greater energy access, it will be the interaction between those
two policies that IIASA research will help to inform.

Further information

Pachauri S (2014). Household electricity access a trivial contributor to CO2 emissions growth in India. Nature Climate Change 4:1073–1076 [doi:10.1038/nclimate2414].

Text by Kerry Skyring

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Last edited: 17 June 2015


Narasimha Rao

Senior Research Scholar


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Shonali Pachauri

Acting Program Director:Senior Research Scholar

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T +43(0) 2236 807 475

Options Summer 2015

ON THE BLOG: Poverty eradication and climate change: Is there a conflict?


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