Boosting household energy access has a minimal direct impact on climate change, according to a new paper that argues ending poverty should be the top short-term priority for poor countries.

The study published in the journal Nature Climate Change is among the first empirical studies to measure how a vast improvement in electrification—in this case, in India—contributed to greenhouse gas emissions levels.

The findings could create a snarl in the efforts of environmental groups who say renewable energy should be the key, if not only, tool to bringing modern electricity services to the 1.5 billion people worldwide living in darkness.

"There has been some level of fear that providing electricity access has to be done only through renewables. While I think doing it through renewables where renewables makes sense is extremely worthwhile, I think in each case it has to be evaluated on its own grounds," said author Shonali Pachauri, a senior research scholar at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria.

Pachauri said she launched her study after reading a news article trumpeting the threat that delivering energy to the world's poor could pose to climate change.

"It made me angry," she said. "I said, 'That's not the cause of the climate problem. It's not all these poor people who are the cause.'"

With few quantified studies available to see just how high emissions grow when poor communities gain electricity, Pachauri said she set out to find hard numbers. She did so in India, where more than 400 million people still live without electricity, relying on candles, kerosene and open fires to cook, work and study. At the same time, the country has made vast achievements in electrifying communities, delivering access to more than 650 million people over 30 years.

Pachauri found two key data sets were available: national numbers showing how much electricity had improved and nationally representative household surveys going back to 1983 that included information about whether the family had access to energy and, if so, how much electricity each household consumes.

Small numbers can get bigger
Crunching those numbers, she found that improvements in household energy access bumped up national emissions just 3.4 percent. That, she said, is largely because even as rates of electrification rose, consumption remained generally low.

"There is certainly a rich minority that is using a lot of electricity, but for the majority of largely poor households, they still consume very, very low amounts of electricity," Pachauri said.

Yet beneath the top-line numbers lies a more nuanced trend. Once Pachauri looked at the indirect emissions sparked by new access—the goods and services those households are now able to consume—she found it was responsible for 11 to 25 percent emissions growth.

"That's a relatively wide range," said Alex Trembath, a senior analyst at the Breakthrough Institute who has written extensively on energy access. "It's a much different story when you are talking about all of the energy use that comes along with increased household and economic growth."

Trembath, who described the paper as "very helpful" in understanding part of the energy access story, also argued that the energy-consuming things that come along with new electrification—like roads, transmission and sewage lines, irrigation and hospitals—can't be ignored.

"My conclusion is, if we're only talking about household energy use, then we're not really having the whole energy access story," he said. Trembath argued that poor nations deserve the same modernization as rich countries, and currently the cheapest and fastest route is via fossil fuels.

"We need to be having the energy access conversation for its own right. Many people will be tempted to make the conclusion for a paper like this that energy access is a free climate lunch, which it's clearly not," he said.

The connection between climate change and energy access is becoming a growing area of study for researchers, particularly since the United Nations launched its Sustainable Energy for All initiative in 2012. The coalition of governments, businesses and agencies have pledged to bring modern electricity services to the 1.5 billion people currently living in darkness by 2030, while also doubling the global rate of energy efficiency as well as the share of renewable energy.

Justin Guay, a campaigner for the Sierra Club who helps lead a movement to boost the use of decentralized renewables to end energy poverty, said he doesn't believe energy access and climate change should be linked at all. Doing so, he argued, naturally pits fossil fuels against clean energy when the real question should be what is the best, cheapest and quickest way to deliver energy services to the poor.

The need for an 'honest conversation'
"Once you take it out of the climate lens and all of the baggage that comes with, then I think you have an honest conversation about how to solve this problem," Guay said. "If it's a development, a poverty alleviation issue, then you're not talking about fossil fuels or clean energy. You're talking about the right tools. And that's when you have the hard question about whether the grid is achieving what everyone says it's achieving."

He pointed to International Energy Agency reports showing that off-grid clean energy will have to provide more than half of all energy services for the United Nations to meet its goal and that relying on extending the grid just isn't an option for about 1 billion of the world's poorest. "What's missed is that the grid is still failing a billion people a day," Guay said.

Pachauri, for her part, argues in the paper that even the indirect emissions growth sparked by new energy access is minuscule compared to richer countries like China and the United States. And she agreed that decentralized energy will be key, particularly for sub-Saharan Africa and parts of South Asia where huge infrastructure costs make grid connection unlikely. But, she maintained, given the high levels of energy poverty and low contribution of newly electrified homes to emissions growth, climate change concerns should not hamstring development.

If it means new coal plants in some cases, Pachauri said, "That's OK. It's not going to contribute largely to emissions growth."

"The message is certainly not that you don't have to worry about climate change," Pachauri said. But, she added, "putting the burden on the poor to reduce emissions is just the wrong message."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500