As people around the world escape poverty, their energy use can be expected to increase. But my research in Nepal, Vietnam and Zambia find the opposite: Lower levels of deprivation were associated with lower levels of energy demand. What is behind this counter-intuitive observation?
After all, the dominant strategy to end extreme poverty is based on the belief that we must grow the economic ‘pie’ in order to be able to produce more goods and services, along with the spending capacity of households and government increases to consume these So when poverty is “diagnosed” by income, the “cure” is said to be economic growth.
However with widen inequalities and a treble health crisis in much of the world, many still escape the promised benefits of economic growth. It turns out that poverty is not just a question of income: it consists of multiple deprivations.
In general, people are poor not because they have less dollars a day to spend than a certain poverty line, but because they cannot access the goods and services that provide sanitation, education or health. Often these are not accessible even with increased income. To put this in context, 1.2 billion people currently lack sanitation and safe drinking water, and 3 billions do not have access to a clean kitchen. Although it is an important predictor of the multiple deprivations faced by people living in poverty, income is not the only (or the best) predictor.
My colleagues and I set out to find out what other predictors lie behind multidimensional poverty, and how can we reach those who use few resources. Our case study in Nepal, Vietnam and Zambia aimed to answer two questions: what do southerners need to live well and how much energy does it take? We explored how resources are used, by whom, for what purpose and with what effects on poverty. We focused on the deprivations related 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 expenditure and living conditions. We linked household spending to energy data from the International Energy Agency and international trade data from a multi-regional input-output database.
This meant that we could calculate each household’s energy footprint (measured in gigajoules), which includes the energy used directly by households at home (like electricity or firewood for cooking) or at home. exterior (gasoline for driving), as well as the energy contained in the goods and services consumed by the household.
Extreme poverty drives up demand for energy
We found that households that have access to clean fuels, clean water, basic education and adequate food, i.e. those who do not live in extreme poverty, can use as little as half the energy of the national average in their country.
This is important, because it goes directly against the argument that more resources and energy will be needed for the inhabitants of the countries of the South to escape extreme poverty. The most important factor is the switch from traditional cooking fuels, such as firewood or charcoal, to more efficient (and less polluting) electricity and gas.
In Zambia, Nepal and Vietnam, modern energy resources are distributed extremely unfairly, more than income, general expenses or even leisure expenses. As a result, poorer households use more dirty energy than richer households, with impacts on health and gender. Cooking on inefficient fuels consumes a lot of energy, and even more so when water has 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 cell phones are neither preconditions nor guarantees of meeting basic needs. Wealthier households without access to electricity or sanitation are not spared child malnutrition or health problems associated with the use of charcoal. Ironically, for most households, it is easier to get a cell phone than a clean, non-polluting fuel for cooking. Therefore, measuring progress through household income leads to an incomplete understanding of poverty and its deprivations.
So what? Are we arguing against the Global South which uses more energy for development? No: instead of focusing on the amount of energy used, we emphasize the importance of public services (such as electricity, indoor sanitation and public transport) to alleviate multiple deprivations of poverty.
In addressing these questions, we cannot help but wonder why so many countries in the southern hemisphere have such low capacity to invest in these services. This is because poverty does not happen on its own: it is created by interconnected systems of wealth extraction such as structural adjustment or high costs of national debt service.
Since climate change is caused by the energy consumption of a rich minority in the north of the world, but the consequences are borne by the majority in the poorer south of the world, human development is not only a question of economic justice but also of climate justice. Investing in vital community services underpins both.