The World Has Two Energy Problems

The rich use too much of it, and the poor have too little.

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Consumption per capita vs GDP per capita

CC Our World In Data

As noted earlier, I have committed to trying to live a 1.5° lifestyle, which means limiting my annual carbon footprint to the equivalent of 2.5 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, the maximum average emissions per capita based on IPCC research.

After my recent post "What is Your Lifetime Carbon Budget and Why Does It Matter?" a commenter asked:

"What's the higher moral imperative preferred here on TreeHugger? Poverty and reduced living standards commensurate with lower emissions or higher carbon emissions and all the benefits of a modern society?"

It's actually a valid and troubling point, made graphic in a recent post by Max Roser of Our World in Data (shown above) where carbon emissions are roughly proportional to income, and pretty much the only people living below the 2.5 tonne per year line are also seriously below the poverty line. Roser notes that we really have two energy problems, one of the rich, and another of the poor.

"The lack of access to energy subjects people to a life in poverty. No electricity means no refrigeration of food; no washing machine or dishwasher; and no light at night. You might have seen the photos of children sitting under a street lamp at night to do their homework. The first energy problem of the world is the problem of energy poverty – those that do not have sufficient access to modern energy sources suffer poor living conditions as a result."
CO2 emissions per capita
CC Our World in Data

It's like the world lives in two bubbles, the pink one mostly in energy poverty, and the blue one where everyone is pretty much over the line, and the richer they are, the higher the emissions per capita. Also, as the people in the pink bubble make more money, they go blue.

It almost seems to be a rule; economist and physicist Robert Ayers compared it to the laws of thermodynamics:

"The essential truth missing from economic education today is that energy is the stuff of the universe, that all matter is also a form of energy, and that the economic system is essentially a system for extracting, processing and transforming energy as resources into energy embodied in products and services."

Or, more succinctly, money is essentially embodied and operating energy. Roser believes that the solution is to "find large-scale energy alternatives to fossil fuels that are affordable, safe and sustainable."

"Without these technologies, we are trapped in a world where we have only bad alternatives: Low-income countries that fail to meet the needs of the current generation; high-income countries that compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs; and middle-income countries that fail on both counts....
Every country is still very far away from providing clean, safe, and affordable energy at a massive scale and unless we make rapid progress in developing these technologies we will remain stuck in the two unsustainable alternatives of today: energy poverty or greenhouse gas emissions."

Perhaps I am living in a fantasyland, believing that there is a third alternative, a decoupling of energy from fossil fuels through increased use of renewables, and a decrease in demand through a culture of sufficiency, of just using less. But that seems to be a hard sell these days.

View Article Sources
  1. "Global Warming Of 1.5 C.Ipcc, 2020.