As people around the world escape poverty, you might expect their energy use to increase. But my research in Nepal, Vietnam, and Zambia found the opposite: lower levels of deprivation were linked to lower levels of energy demand. What is behind this counter-intuitive finding?
After all, the prevailing strategy to end extreme poverty relies on the belief that we need to grow the economic “pie,” so we can produce more goods and services, at the same time as households and government spending capacity increases to consume those goods and services. And so, when poverty is “diagnosed” by income, the “remedy” is said to be economic growth.
However with widening inequalities and an acute sanitation crisis in much of the world, many still evade the promised benefits of economic growth. It turns out that poverty is not only about income: it consists of multiple deprivations.
In general, people are poor not because they have fewer dollars per day to spend than a certain poverty threshold, but because they cannot access goods and services that provide sanitation, education, or health. Often, these cannot be accessed even with increased incomes. To put this in context, 1.2 billion people currently lack sanitation and clean water, and 3 billion lack access to clean cooking. Although an important predictor for the multiple deprivations that people in poverty face, income is not the only (or best) predictor.
My colleagues and I set out to find what other predictors lie behind multidimensional poverty, and how can we deliver those at low resource use. Our case study in Nepal, Vietnam, and Zambia aimed to answer two questions: what is needed for people in the global south to live well, and how much energy does it take? We explored how resources are used, by whom, with what purpose, and with what effects on poverty. We focused on deprivations linked to access to clean water, food, basic education and access to modern fuels.
We used nationally representative household surveys, each containing thousands of responses covering expenditures and living conditions. We linked household expenditures with energy data from the International Energy Agency and data on international trade from a multi-regional input-output database.
This meant we could calculate the energy footprint for each household (measured in gigajoules), which includes energy used directly by the households at home (such as electricity, or firewood for cooking) or outside it (petrol for driving), as well as indirect energy embedded in the goods and services consumed by the household.
Extreme poverty drives energy demand up
We found that households that do have access to clean fuels, safe water, basic education and adequate food—that is, those not in extreme poverty—can use as little as half the energy of the national average in their country.
This is important, as it goes directly against the argument that more resources and energy will be needed for people in the global south to escape extreme poverty. The biggest factor is the switch from traditional cooking fuels, like firewood or charcoal, to more efficient (and less polluting) electricity and gas.
In Zambia, Nepal and Vietnam, modern energy resources are extremely unfairly distributed—more so than income, general spending, or even spending on leisure. As a consequence, poorer households use more dirty energy than richer households, with ensuing health and gender impacts. Cooking with inefficient fuels consumes a lot of energy, and even more when water needs to be boiled before drinking.
But do households with higher incomes and more devices have a better chance of escaping poverty? Some do, but having higher incomes and mobile phones are not either prerequisites or guarantees of having basic needs satisfied. Richer households without access to electricity or sanitation are not spared from having malnourished children or health problems from using charcoal. Ironically, for most households, it is easier to obtain a mobile phone than a clean, non-polluting fuel for cooking. Therefore, measuring progress via household income leads to an incomplete understanding of poverty and its deprivations.
So what? Are we arguing against the global south using more energy for development? No: instead of focusing on how much energy is used, we are pointing to the importance of collective services (like electricity, indoor sanitation and public transport) for alleviating the multiple deprivations of poverty.
In addressing these issues we cannot shy away from asking why so many countries in the global south have such a low capacity to invest in those services. It has to do with the fact that poverty does not just happen: it is created via interlinked systems of wealth extraction such as structural adjustment, or high costs of servicing national debts.
Given that climate change is caused by the energy use of a rich minority in the global north but the consequences are borne by the majority in the poorer global south, human development is not only a matter of economic justice but also climate justice. Investing in vital collective services underpins both.