26 November 2019

Nobody left behind

Options Winter 2019/20: Mitigating climate change while increasing energy access may seem to be at odds, but IIASA research is helping policymakers find a path forward.

© Adam Islaam | IIASA and Pavlo Syvak | Dreamstime

© Adam Islaam | IIASA and Pavlo Syvak | Dreamstime

Four years after the adoption of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we are just starting to understand the challenges inherent in achieving sometimes competing policy objectives. One of the thorniest issues is how to achieve universal access to modern energy, while simultaneously addressing the global climate crisis.

Even before the adoption of the SDGs, which laid out energy access and climate change action as equal goals within 17 overall objectives, interconnections and potential vonflicts were apparent.

“Energy use — if the energy supply is fossil based — will result in greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change,” explains IIASA researcher Shonali Pachauri.

At the same time, 13% of the global population still lacks access to modern electricity and three billion people rely on wood, coal, charcoal, or animal waste for cooking and heating, which also leads to health problems and contributes to deforestation.

The problem gets even more complicated when researchers consider the effects of climate change on future energy needs.

“Climate change is already happening, and that means communities have to adapt. In some regions, that will mean a greater need for cooling, while in others it may mean less need for heating,” adds Pachauri.

According to a recent assessment from the IIASA Energy Program, the overall effect of climate change will be a greater need for energy on a global scale, dominated by the increased need for cooling, particularly in the Global South.

It's getting hot in here

In their study, IIASA researcher Alessio Mastrucci and colleagues estimated that between 1.8 and 4.1 billion people worldwide are at risk from heat stress because they lack access to residential space cooling, especially in Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

“Bridging this gap by simply providing conventional fans and air conditioning units would require an additional 14% of current global residential electricity consumption,” says Mastrucci. “This calls for broader strategies to bridge the gap.”

Mastrucci’s research indicates that these strategies include not only investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy, but also building designs that reduce the need for air conditioning.

No sliver bullet

Another key message emerging from the growing body of research is that solving the issue requires an understanding of local conditions and contexts. In another study, Pachauri and colleagues in Italy developed a satellite dataset of nighttime lights across Africa, which afforded a detailed view of energy on the continent.

“We found that while progress with electrification between 2014 and 2018 varied across nations, disparities were even more pronounced at a sub-national provincial level,” she explains.

The detailed dataset revealed issues that would have been hidden in coarser, country level data, potentially allowing policymakers to take steps to solve a problem that until recently, they may not have even been able to identify.

“A big challenge with a lot of planning that's happening right now, is the fact that people have a very limited understanding of what demand is and how it is changing over time,” says Pachauri.

Local solutions for energy and sustainability

IIASA researchers are also applying their research to find practical solutions that can be put into practice in specific places.

For example, the Hindu Kush Himalaya — a majestic region of high mountains that reaches into eight countries, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan — is one of the many areas on the planet that is especially burdened by energy poverty. Four hundred million people there still lack access to basic electricity, and 80% of the rural population cook their meals over fires.

Distribution of people without electricity access over Uganda in 2018. The figure provides a sample representation of the output dataset. Colors represent the density of people without electricity access in each 1km pixel. Administrative boundaries correspond to the first level of the Database of Global Administrative Areas (GADM) definition.

IIASA researcher Pallav Purohit — who grew up there — wondered why, in a region rich with water and potential hydropower resources, energy access remains such a challenge. In a recent analysis with scientists from seven other countries, Purohit analyzed the energy outlook of the Hindu Kush Himalayas from a broad perspective, including supply and demand, policies, institutions, opportunities, and potential transformational pathways for sustainable energy. They found that a narrow focus on one piece of the puzzle may have limited progress more broadly.

...the issues of equity and justice, poverty eradication, development, and how those link to climate are now center stage.

“Existing national policy frameworks primarily focus on electrification for household lighting, with limited attention paid to energy for clean cooking and heating, while productive energy use promotion has remained a neglected area in historical development practice. As a result, there has been limited progress in access to energy for clean cooking compared to the progress in electricity access in all the Himalaya countries,” says Purohit.

Pachauri points to a similar challenge in other developing countries, where development finance has focused on small off-grid solar panels that can provide enough energy to, for instance, charge a cell phone, but not enough to run an air conditioner or heat a stove.

“We need to think more long-term, about building infrastructure that will provide people with the energy they need to have decent living conditions,” she says.

While the challenges remain daunting, IIASA researchers see reason for optimism.

“As long as you're thinking of climate policy as removed from development policy from development objectives, you're never going to achieve what you want — they have to go hand in hand,” says Pachauri. “Compared to ten years ago, however, the issues of equity and justice, poverty eradication, development, and how those link to climate are now center stage. I think that's really thanks to a lot of the work that we have done here at IIASA.”

By Katherine Leitzell

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Last edited: 20 November 2019


Shonali Pachauri

Research Group Leader

Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group|Energy


and Environment Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 475

Alessio Mastrucci

Research Scholar

Sustainable Service Systems Research Group|Transformative Institutional and Social Solutions Research Group|Energy


and Environment Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 296

Pallav Purohit

Research Scholar

Pollution Management Research Group|Energy


and Environment Program

T +43(0) 2236 807 336

Options Winter 2019/20

Read the current issue


Falchetta, G., Pachauri, S. , Parkinson, S. , & Byers, E. (2019). A high-resolution gridded dataset to assess electrification in sub-Saharan Africa. Scientific Data 6 (1), art. 110. 10.1038/s41597-019-0122-6.

van Ruijven, B. , De Cian, E., & Sue Wing, I. (2019). Amplification of future energy demand growth due to climate change. Nature Communications 10 (1) 10.1038/s41467-019-10399-3.

Mastrucci, A. , Byers, E. , Pachauri, S. , & Rao, N. (2019). Improving the SDG energy poverty targets: residential cooling needs in the Global South. Energy and Buildings 186, 405-415. 10.1016/j.enbuild.2019.01.015.

Dhakal, S., Srivastava, L., Sharma, B., Palit, D., Mainali, B., Nepal, R., Purohit, P. , Goswami, A., et al. (2019). Meeting Future Energy Needs in the Hindu Kush Himalaya. In: The Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment. pp. 167-207 Cham, Switzerland: Springer. ISBN 978-3-319-92287-410.1007/978-3-319-92288-1_6.

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