Updated on September 29, 2015
Last week, the vast majority of the world’s prime ministers and presidents, along with the odd pontiff and monarch, gathered in New York to sign up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Across 169 targets, the SDGs declare the global aspiration to end poverty and malnutrition, slash child mortality, and guarantee universal secondary education by 2030. And they also call for universal access to modern energy alongside taking “urgent action to combat climate change.”
These last two targets are surely important, but they conflict, too: More electricity production is likely to mean more greenhouse-gas emissions. The UN squares that circle by using a definition of modern energy access that involves a pitifully low level of electricity consumption. But that does a disservice to both those worried about development and those concerned by climate change. Poor people are going to have to consume a lot more energy if they are to enjoy a lifestyle that those in the West take for granted—and that is going to take environmental pragmatism in the short term and a revolutionary change in the technology of electricity production in the long term.
More than 1.3 billion people across the planet have no access to electricity. Many of those who do have access suffer brownouts, blackouts, and other forms of limited supply. Absent electricity, people use less efficient and more harmful substitutes: Kerosene lamps are often behind burn injuries and deaths around the world, and working under those lamps is as bad for your health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. That’s why the arrival of power lines can be so transformative. Electrification in northern El Salvador was associated with a 78-percent increase in time studying and in class among school-age children and a 25-percentage point increase in the likelihood of households operating a business. These businesses made on average $1,000 a year—not bad in an area where local incomes are around $770 per person.