December 13, 2019 / 5:24 PM / 2 months ago

Column: Electricity access and climate change

LONDON (Reuters) - Ensuring everyone in developing countries has the same access to modern energy services that residents of the advanced economies take for granted will require an enormous rise in electricity generation.

Pylons of high-tension electricity power lines are seen near the Bugey Nuclear Power Plant after heavy snowfall in Saint -Vulbas, France, November 15, 2019. REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which were agreed by governments in 2015, commit member states to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts.

But they also include a commitment to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and sustainable modern energy services (“Transforming our world: the 2030 agenda for sustainable development”, United Nations, 2015).

In practice, that means providing universal access to electricity in adequate amounts, at reasonable prices, and generated without releasing excessive emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Environmental campaigners and governments in the advanced economies, where electricity has been plentiful for half a century, and consumption has been flat recently, tend to put more emphasis on the climate goal.

But for governments in developing countries, where consumption is still much lower, and some households and businesses lack electrical connections at all, increasing energy access is at least as important, if not more so.

In these countries, there is still enormous unmet demand for modern energy services – including cooking, air-conditioning, lighting and power for modern appliances, such as refrigerators, televisions and computers.

ELECTRICITY USE

In 2014, Nigeria’s electricity consumption per capita was just 145 kilowatt-hours (kWh), India averaged 805 kWh and Indonesia averaged 812 kWh, according to data from the World Bank.

(Chartbook: tmsnrt.rs/2Ph2efa)

Per capita electricity consumption in other middle-income countries was substantially higher, including Mexico (2,150 kWh) and Brazil (2,600 kWh) (“World development indicators”, World Bank, 2019).

Further along the development path, China was consuming an average of 3,900 kWh, while the EU was using almost 6,000 kWh and the United States was at nearly 13,000 kWh.

If populous developing countries such as India, Indonesia and Nigeria want to lift consumption to the same level as China, let alone the EU or the United States, generation will have to rise by almost an order of magnitude.

Per capita electricity consumption has been falling slightly in North America and Western Europe for more than a decade as a result of rising prices, efficiency improvements and offshoring of many energy-intensive industries.

But consumption is still rising rapidly in most developing economies, with gains averaging 1-3% per year in Mexico and Brazil, 5-6% in India and Indonesia, and as much as 7-10% in China, over the decade from 2004 to 2014.

ENERGY TRANSITION

Under existing climate change agreements, policymakers envisage a worldwide energy transition from CO2-emitting fossil fuels to cleaner electricity generated from zero-emission wind, solar and nuclear sources.

But the challenge is not just to install a few rooftop solar panels or windfarms to replace existing coal, gas and diesel-fired power plants or provide a few hours of electricity each day to communities that currently have none.

The real challenge is to replace existing CO2-emitting power plants; while simultaneously meeting an increase in electricity consumption of roughly an order of magnitude; and shift much of the petroleum-based transportation system to electricity, increasing electricity consumption even further.

The massive implied increase in electricity generation will be very difficult to achieve without using coal and gas for the next several decades, as well as wind, solar and nuclear generating stations.

The scale of the challenge helps explain why atmospheric CO2 is not even close to stabilising, as policymakers have promised under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations need to stabilise at no more than 450 parts per million and preferably 430 ppm to limit global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius or preferably 1.5 degrees.

But concentrations have already reached 412 ppm, up from 388 ppm a decade ago, according to a time series of regular observations from the observatory at Mauna Loa in Hawaii dating back to the 1950s.

CO2 concentrations look set to breach the lower limit in under ten years, and the upper target in less than 20 years, based on the trend in the Mauna Loa data (“Scripps CO2 program”, Scripps Institution of Oceanography).

Given the timescales needed for economy-wide energy transitions, which usually stretch into decades, these targets now look impossible to meet.

John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.

Related columns:

- Urbanisation and rising energy consumption (Reuters, Nov. 13)

- Global travel revolution challenges energy and climate targets (Reuters, Oct. 31)

- Rising energy use to push CO2 far above target through 2050 (Reuters, Sept. 26)

- Climate change targets are slipping out of reach (Reuters, April 16)

Editing by Louise Heavens

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