The goal of alleviating global poverty is not controversial. Poverty creates terrible human suffering and wasted human potential, and it’s urgent that we find solutions. Some solutions are obvious and widely popular, such as vaccines, free primary schooling and better nutrition. But we have also come to understand that energy is among the most important anti-poverty tools, an underpinning for other development goals. Yet energy access as a way to fight poverty is often greatly misunderstood. 

ENERGY ACCESS

We came to understand the importance of energy late, only as part of analyzing the potential for global decarbonization. The United Nations also came to this understanding in 2015 when it developed its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) aimed at “ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all.” Goal number seven: access to energy for all. 

A hint at the challenges involved lies in the focus of SDG no. 7, or SDG7, on “affordable and clean energy.” This phrase conjures images of rooftop solar panels, kitchens illuminated with a single light bulb, and community wind turbines. These are important parts of fighting poverty, and they represent progress for people who rely on burning wood for heat and light. However, this basic level of energy access addresses only a tiny part of the greater challenge. It is the first step, not the destination. Yet the data indicator used by the U.N. to determine energy access success is minimum threshold of 50 kilowatt-hours per year. In other words, the goal would be considered met if a person in India or Senegal used as much energy in a whole year as an average American uses in just 33 hours. 

This is not a way to eliminate global poverty—but other adjectives in SDG7 get us closer to a true solution: affordable, reliable and modern.

MODERN ENERGY

No one would argue that a single light bulb and cell phone charger are adequate to eliminate poverty. As a first step, however, they are critical. Light expands the hours available for both working and education and eliminates the burning of inefficient fuels that create health problems. Chargers increase connectivity and access to information. Economic development truly begins when energy expands to transform hard manual labor to other more productive pursuits. Energy that allows for the pumping of water, the reduction of indoor cooking over biofuels, and refrigeration of food is the next step in a community’s transformation. True economic development begins when energy can support farming, commercial development and, ultimately, industrialization. It’s tempting to romanticize rural, subsistence living, but those fantasies are a luxury of people who aren’t poor. 

Access to reliable and abundant energy helps to create safe and prosperous communities. Widely available and safe medical care can proliferate. Productive agriculture fueled by effective fertilizer can feed growing populations. Enhanced infrastructure can enable efficient transport of goods and services. A more educated population can move countries away from labor and subsistence economies and retain and attract talent. None of this can happen without fuel, feedstock and reliable power. It is expanding access to modern energy that creates and expands the virtuous cycle of economic development. 

No society has modernized without building a commercial and industrial sector. To support the creation of an increasingly prosperous society, a modern energy system must be affordable, sustainable, dispatchable, reliable and scalable. How these tradeoffs are prioritized depends upon a community’s needs and a nation’s endowments. For example, imagine a fast-growing city in an emerging economy. Its system’s reliability is of critical importance to establish and grow commercial enterprises, spurring more economic development. Reliability is essential for new business owners to have the confidence to invest, compete, and ultimately, to grow. 

AN OVERLOOKED SOLUTION

Scalable energy solutions aimed at business and productive uses do not fit the standard narrative about poverty reduction. They are, by nature, vast in size and industrial in nature. Natural gas is one example of a dramatic, often overlooked solution. It’s worth taking a closer look.

Natural gas is an energy-dense fuel that can be used to generate electricity, power cars and fuel cookstoves, all with significantly lower air and carbon emissions than existing technologies like coal-fired power plants or indoor heating from wood or other solid fuels. Natural gas can also be used to create building blocks for burgeoning economies such as fertilizer for large-scale agriculture, heat to run industrial processes, and raw feedstock for plastics and electronics. Luckily, many of the countries in Asia and Africa where many of the world’s poor live also have vast reservoirs of natural gas. Bangladesh, Nigeria, Ghana, Mozambique, Timor-Leste, Tanzania, Papua New Guinea and Senegal all have large proven gas reserves and huge unmet energy needs at home. 

A FALSE CEILING

Although the SDGs are built around universally shared values, they have been subsumed into a larger narrative about climate change. We, too, want to prioritize the reduction of carbon and pollutants; yet the current debate has overwhelmed the conversation about poverty reduction and falsely limited the array of solutions. 

Greenhouse gases are now presented as a limiting constraint under which economies may develop. Although virtually no one living in an industrialized nation would skip a business trip to accommodate a “carbon budget,” we expect entire countries to develop around this rigorous standard. This “either-or” choice misses the point entirely. Expanding access to reliable and modern energy will both alleviate energy poverty and address critical environmental challenges. The perversity of society’s current approach to poverty alleviation and access to energy is that it artificially constrains economic development. This is justified by the myth that the world can successfully end poverty with just 50 kilowatt-hours of electricity. 

GLOBAL REALITIES

In reality, the demand for energy is still on a steep upward curve. As hundreds of millions migrate into cities and move into the middle class, energy demand will grow dramatically. Nearly all of that future demand is in the developing world. All of the things we take for granted in the United States—24/7 power, air conditioning, continual high-speed internet, cold storage, rapid cheap delivery and all of the other aspects of a modern life—are coveted by people everywhere. Some of this demand will be offset by efficiency gains and decreasing carbon intensity of the global economy. But the math tells us that energy demand is about to surge dramatically 

WRAPPING UP

The false choice inherent in the current climate-driven approach for approaching poverty reduction is not sustainable. Instead of working backward from climate goals, we believe in working forward toward human potential. We should reorient the conversation to support developing economies as they work toward prosperity. This is not an either-or question about climate and development. Instead, it is a deliberative approach that acknowledges the many shared priorities and tradeoffs inherent in development, placing economic growth as the clear priority.