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Copenhagen Consensus Center

Post-2015 Consensus: Energy Perspective, Moss Gleave

Perspective Paper


The invigorated focus on energy on the development agenda is a positive step reflecting what governments, business leaders, and citizens across the developing world agree: increasing access to energy is a top priority and central to solving other challenges in health, education, and job creation. The first set of MDGs acknowledged energy’s role, but left access as an implicit step required to meet other targets. The draft list of new Sustainable Development Goals now includes a proposal to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

However, while there is general agreement on the need for universal access to electricity, determining what specifically constitutes “modern access” is a more difficult task, with no clear-cut definition. Modern energy access entails less a physical connection than the availability of reliable and affordable power necessary to sustain a dignified lifestyle, one that is consistently free from depravation and intimately connected with the global community. At present, nearly all definitions provide a gross underestimate of what a growing class of the world’s poor expect and demand in the way of energy services.

According to the IEA definition, a household is considered to have “modern electricity access” at a consumption minimum of 250 kWh per year (or roughly 50 kWh/person/year) in rural areas and 500 kWh per year (100 kWh/person/year) in urban areas. But these are indefensibly low thresholds. An average of 100 kWh/year equates to powering a single 60 watt light bulb for five hours each day; a typical American would use the same amount of energy in just three days.

We propose three possible alternative ways to set thresholds that would capture a more realistic level of consumption at modern levels and provide a better target:

  1. A simple peer-level threshold, based on average consumption levels in middle-income countries such as Tunisia (1,300 kWh/year) or South Africa (4,600 kWh/year). This would provide targets which are closer to what is needed for a modern standard of living.
  2. The World Bank’s Global Tracking Framework has developed a classification of energy access over a system of five tiers. One approach could set the global goal for all citizens to have reliable, affordable, and safe energy for household use and cooking by 2030—which is at minimum Tier 4. Countries already at Tier 4 could aim to reach Tier 5.
  3. In the same way as we can estimate daily nutritional needs, an energy access goal could be based on the energy required for a basket of fundamental services needed to sustain modern life. This could, for example, be the power needed to run basic energy intensive assets, initially a mobile phone, radio, television and fridge plus standard cooking and lighting appliances.

Our purpose is to affirm that access to affordable, safe, and clean energy is a worthwhile goal and potentially a post-2015 global development goal. While the nature of energy access, services, and consumption makes estimating specific targets complex, we are failing the world’s poor if we underestimate true demand and collectively do not aim for a brighter, fully-powered future.