Improved electricity access barely increases emissions

Improving household electricity access in India over the last 30 years accounts for only a small portion of the country’s total carbon emissions growth during that time, shows a new study from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA).

The study, recently published in the journal Nature Climate Change, makes an important contribution to the on-going debate on the potential conflict between climate and development.

While increased energy access is widely agreed to be an important goal for development efforts, such as the UN Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, the climate impacts of increased access to electricity have been unclear. The new study is the first to examine the impact of electricity access on carbon dioxide emissions using two sources of retrospective data.

IIASA researcher Shonali Pachauri used India as a case study, but said that the country is at a similar stage to many other developing countries in terms of rapidly increasing energy access. “So we believe that these findings will be applicable on a broad scale to other developing countries.”

Her study found that improved electricity access in India from 1981 to 2011 accounted for approximately 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, or only a 3-4 per cent of the rise in total national CO2 emissions. However, since electrification also tends to lead to increased wealth and participation in the economy, it can also lead to additional increases in emissions from indirect energy use through consumption. Taking these factors into account, Pachauri found that household electricity use would account 11 to 25 per cent of emissions growth in the country.

“This study shows that the climate impacts of expanding access are in fact very small,” says Pachauri, who conducted the study. However, she adds, expanding low-carbon energy technologies in developing countries would bring many co-benefits beyond climate mitigation and should be encouraged. “Low-carbon energy sources bring improved health, efficiency, and can also bring benefits to the economy and employment.”


Photo credit: Engineering for Change, flickr/Creative Commons

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