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Energy access and climate change adaptation: obvious links that remain under-studied?

For sustainable development, the need to address the impacts of a changing climate on socio-economically disadvantaged vulnerable communities is well-established. A significant number of these vulnerable communities across the world lack access to reliable, affordable and sustainable energy. Currently, large-scale efforts, financial and technological, are being undertaken to independently address these challenges. There is very little thought given to identifying links between access to energy and climate adaptation efforts. This is particularly surprising, considering both are pro-development activities with an overarching aim to improve people’s quality of life in perpetuity.

Globally, calls are increasingly being made to adopt an integrative approach that facilitates solutions that tackle poverty and impacts from climate change not subsequently, but concurrently. In fact, it is being argued that integrating these closely-connected objectives significantly strengthens our chances of achieving them. What then is the role of energy, and how might reliable and affordable access to modern energy facilitate pathways to address the dual poverty-climate adaptation challenge?

From the perspective of long-term sustainable development, the twin challenges of energy poverty and adaptation to climate impacts are deeply inter-connected in at least three important ways: firstly, energy plays a fundamental role in facilitating socio-economic development. Energy access enables improvements across agriculture, biodiversity, health, education, and income diversification. This, in turn, positively influences people’s capacity to deal with natural disasters by building their resilience and reducing their vulnerability at both micro and macro levels.

Secondly, and more importantly, climatic changes and disaster events could make energy resources scarcer (through impacts on income, biomass, water availability, energy infrastructure), thus pushing energy poor households and communities to deeper levels of impoverishment and a ‘poverty trap’ (as experienced in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake).

Thirdly, in the process of transitioning to long-term sustainability, current energy choices will have serious implications for future anthropogenic climate change. To that effect, improvements across social, financial and technological capital among energy poor can be expected to provide incentives for, and often drive, the uptake of cleaner, sustainable energy options, ultimately leading to synergies across climate mitigation efforts.

Despite these obvious linkages, the energy access-climate adaptation-development nexus remains complex due to the presence of both positive and negative feedback loops. On the one hand, access to energy facilitates transformational changes in social and economic development, over time driving up energy demands and unsustainable consumption patterns, ultimately contributing to enhanced emissions. On the other hand, relatively small access to modern energy provides numerous positive and significant benefits to energy poor communities across the areas of health, education, women empowerment and diversified livelihoods, among others.

It is important that the significance of the relationship between these positive and negative feedback loops is better understood, not only to address the short-term impacts of climate change on energy poor communities and regions, but also to better engage with long-term broader energy choices essential to coordinate climate mitigation efforts globally.

Researchers at the Energy & Poverty Research Group at the University of Queensland, Australia are currently investigating links between energy use/access, human welfare and climate adaptation. This piece draws on work currently in-progress. For further info, please visit EPRG.