Giving Up Your Washing Machine for Climate Change?

By James Slutz
May 5, 2014
General Foundation

In a presentation a few years ago, health economist Hans Rosling noted that only two out of seven people in the world have access to washing machines. Rosling went on to state that access to washing machines has been critical for women and families because this time-saving device allows for greater economic output and improved education.  It is too easy for the one billion people in the world who use 50% of global energy to take for granted their washing machines and the energy to operate them.  This is particularly true considering the limited options regarding climate change and energy use for the two to three billion people who have little to no access to electricity. 

America’s policies around international trade and finance do not sufficiently consider the trade-offs between energy poverty and the environment.  In fact, in some cases, they are preventing greater energy access and even cleaner energy development when fossil fuels are the source.  A recent paper by the Center for Global Development, “Balancing Energy Access and Environmental Goals in Development Finance: the Case of the OPIC Carbon Cap,” presents the conflict between environmental goals and reducing energy poverty.

While there is significant research and policy projections on the long-term impact of climate change, effects of energy poverty are less understood.  These impacts are not part of a theoretical future, but are real and immediate.  A lack of access to energy includes:

  • Premature deaths related to household air pollution from burning solid fuels—such as wood, coal, and dung—for cooking and heat. They are estimated to cause 3.5 million deaths per year.
  • Health services limited because of a lack of electricity.  In Africa alone, more than 30% of health facilities operate without electricity. Without reliable electricity, clinics are unable to effectively store vaccines and other pharmaceuticals.
  • Without electricity, education is limited to daylight hours and children are left without access to computers and the Internet. In Africa, more than half of all school children attend schools without electricity.
  • Economic development is inhibited without reliable electricity.  Access to just electric lighting can improve the economic prospects of a family by extending the productive workday by a few hours. Electricity is an essential component of expanding manufacturing too.

 

Taking into consideration the impact of energy poverty is not saying that we shouldn’t address climate change.  However, there are trade-offs in policy decisions.  We should consider those trade-offs and make decisions on real impacts, not politically attractive perspectives.  Addressing energy poverty means addressing real health issues in the short term and building economic capacity at home and in developing countries.

 

Like many cities in developing countries, Katmandu, Nepal, lacks an effective electricity grid. Without indigenous resources, most energy sources are imported.  The most reliable fuel for power in a city like Katmandu is coal-fueled power plants.  Private international investment in a new large-scale power plant in Nepal is almost impossible without developmental agency financial support, at least to mitigate political risk.  The U.S. government’s policies make obtaining that support for fossil fuel power plants almost impossible.  So, instead of a state-of-the-art, pollution-controlled coal power plant, thousands of small generators without any pollution control turn on around 5 o’clock every day, creating pollution and smog in the largest city in Nepal.

recent paper from the Center of Global Development highlighted an analysis of a $10 billion portfolio run by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation in Africa.  If natural gas was allowed instead of just renewable energy, an additional 60 million people in poor nations could gain access to electricity.  Perhaps those 60 million would not yet have washing machines, but they would have improved health care, education, and economic opportunities.

Ignoring trade-offs doesn’t make them go away. It is time to move beyond political attractiveness to make real decisions in reducing energy poverty. A higher standard of living is the best way to address the future impacts of climate change, not the appearance of progress.