A field of small wind turbines on Sumba island in central Indonesia brings electricity to the local community. Photo: AFP / Romeo Gacad

Energy is fundamental to modern living and economic prosperity. Recent global crises, especially the Covid-19 pandemic and the existential threat of climate change, have exposed stark inequalities and raised the urgency of providing modern energy for everyone. 

Energy is a prerequisite to both recovery from the pandemic and long-term development goals. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 calls for “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” Yet the primary indicator for residential electrification is set at 100 kilowatt-hours per capita per year – a bare-bones level of consumption that cannot raise incomes or sustain economic growth. 

This Sunday, June 5, the United Nations will recognize World Environment Day. In honor of that occasion, let’s help our planet by using the new “Modern Energy Minimum” metric that raises the bar on global targets for ending energy poverty and is better aligned with the way that energy drives living standards, livelihoods, and the expansion of industry, commerce, and agriculture.

Energy for Growth Hub and the Rockefeller Foundation’s recent study show that countries with higher income per person consume more electricity. All high-income countries have annual electricity consumption above 3,000kWh per capita.

For example, in 2014, India’s gross national income (GNI) was US$1,560 and the electric power consumption was 805kWh, while in Hong Kong, where the GNI was US$40,240, the electric power consumption 6,083kWh. More energy consumption means an improved lifestyle.

The new Modern Energy Minimum proposed is 1,000kWh per person per year, inclusive of both 300kWh of household and 700kWh of non-household electricity consumption. This metric provides a significantly more ambitious energy target that is better aligned with development aspirations for employment, higher incomes, and economic transformation for emerging economies. 

Traditionally, the world has focused on emissions in big, developed countries. Less attention has been paid to the 81 energy-poor developing economies home to half the world’s population, but if the world decarbonizes without them, by 2050 these countries could produce up to 75% of emissions.

There is a need to ensure a more rapid and equitable energy transition in these countries that have made only a tiny contribution to global emissions to date. 

How the new metric will be used

As a priority, the global community needs to call fir adoption of the metric to track performance and influence planning and investment decisions. It must be encouraged to get involved in development – from governments and agencies to philanthropists and investors – to use the new Modern Energy Minimum to inform ongoing development objectives and to track progress against systemic energy poverty.

In the future, the new metric should be an indicator for the next iteration of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. 

This new metric raises the bar on global targets for ending energy poverty, aiming to align better with the way that energy drives living standards, livelihoods, and the expansion of industry, commerce, and agriculture.

There is an opportunity for us to build a better, more inclusive, and more sustainable world. Thriving in the modern economy requires access to reliable, productive-use energy that is consumed at scale. This calls for all to be far more ambitious when it comes to energy.

Electrification potential

By unleashing the true potential of renewable mini-grids over the past decade, the Rockefeller Foundation has sought to deliver reliable, productive-use electrification in an efficient manner. It will enable energy-poor people in Asia, Africa, and around the world to have access to reliable electricity that can transform their livelihoods and empower them to achieve the fundamentals of human well-being. 

With more than half a million people affected by the initiative so far, we have demonstrated the impact that distributed renewable energy can have on communities, and in doing so, set the stage for the launch of the Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet in 2021. 

While it will take time for many rural communities in low and middle-income countries to achieve 1,000 units of electricity consumption per person, the Modern Energy Minimum is the north star. 

Thanks to advances in technology over the past decade that have made it possible to deploy renewable electrification solutions to hundreds of rural communities, at scale. It is clearly not enough to stop efforts once a home has a lightbulb or a shop has its first appliance.

This is a longer-term effort to grow consumption and create that virtuous circle of demand generation that supports the growth of local businesses and local jobs and track progress along the way to a world where everyone has the opportunity to achieve the Modern Energy Minimum.

There is a lot more that needs to be done to accelerate investment in green and inclusive solutions, including distributed renewable energy, grid-based energy transitions that all together can more quickly and cost-effectively impact the lives of people at risk of being even further marginalized by the climate crisis. 

A recovery with justice and equity requires an urgent movement to electrify the bottom billion: We need to get what would have taken 20 years done in five. This is a challenge and an opportunity.

Deepali Khanna is vice-president for Asia at the Rockefeller Foundation.