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FEATURE: New South Africa study – Access to electricity for all has minimal impacts on the climate


Louise Tait is a researcher at the Energy Research Centre at the University of Cape Town where she focuses on issues related to energy, poverty and development.

Access to modern energy services for the world’s poorest has a high profile this year with 2012 declared the International Year of Sustainable Energy Access for All. Access to modern energy underpins the achievement of virtually every aspect of development, from health and education to facilitating the creation of wealth-creating, productive enterprises.

Energy access is an on-going process of obtaining access to more technologies and increasing consumption over time. Access to modern energy services includes access to improved cooking fuels and technologies, access to electricity, and decentralised renewable energy technologies. The impacts of these initiatives on climate change vary. Some efforts to increase energy access may actually reduce greenhouse gas emissions, for example, the rollout of improved biomass stoves that use fuel more efficiently. Other interventions, such as electrification, especially where it is generated from fossil fuels, may have greater emissions implications.

Debates about electricity access must now consider climate change impacts and dovetail with Nationally Appropriate Mitigation Actions (NAMAs). A new study investigates the impact on emissions from South Africa’s universal electrification target. The Government of South Africa has since 1994 been focusing its efforts on increasing electricity access to poor households without it. This study indicates that, far from having negative impacts on the country’s greenhouse gas emissions profile, this electricity access programme will have little net impact on emissions, whilst creating multiple developmental benefits.

South Africa is one of the major global emitters of greenhouse gases. The country has a particularly emissions intensive electricity sector, based largely on burning low-grade coal which has high associated emissions. The majority of this electricity feeds the industrial economy and the country has a very low per-capita consumption of electricity. South Africa has committed itself to reducing its emissions by 34% by 2020 and by 42% by 2025% below business as usual (business as usual is a term used to describe the path whereby South Africa makes no changes to its development and emissions trajectory).

A recent study on the CO2 emissions implications of achieving universal access to electricity in South Africa, found that providing access to electricity to a backlog of 3.4 million households by 2020 would result in an additional 13Mt of CO2 emissions. This increase would account for approximately 1.8% of the total projected national emissions. Furthermore the poorest of these 3.4 million additional households would only account for 0.4 Mt CO2 or 0.06% of projected national emissions. Therefore, providing electricity for all would not significantly increase South Africa’s emissions.In addition, the estimated emissions are not all additional, as some emissions from current usage of other fuels (e.g. kerosene) would be displaced from now using electricity instead.

Experience from South Africa’s electrification programme shows that poor households tend to consume very little electricity, even after they have access. This is largely due to issues of affordability and hence the relatively limited overall impacts on emissions. However, consumption of even small amounts of energy by households can have important welfare benefits and as wealth increases over time, households now have the opportunity to increase their consumption of safe and modern energy sources. This process of gradually rising consumption is best captured in the concept of suppressed demand, which explains that households may consume less energy than they need, but once they can afford more energy or access improves, their consumption will increase. The implications are that expanding access through fossil-fuel based electricity to even millions of households may have relatively minor emissions impacts now but longer term trends of rising affluence are very likely to change this. This highlights an opportunity and a necessity to pre-empt emissions intensive growth paths in the future.

The study done in South Africa looked only at a scenario of the continuation of grid-based electrification, which was in line with stated policy objectives. There is however a strong role for renewable energy to play in the access agenda, both in South Africa and elsewhere. These technologies, such as household solar PV panels or renewable energy mini-grids, not only offer the prospect of low carbon development paths but, considering that many of the energy poor live in rural areas, may also be the least-cost and most viable technology option in many instances. In the context of low-density and dispersed settlement patterns it can be technically difficult or too expensive to extend the grid and decentralised renewable technologies may be the most appropriate option.

Taking the perspective of how energy access fits into longer term development objectives, highlights the synergies that exist in achieving both access and mitigation goals. Recently the approval of suppressed demand as a baseline methodology for Clean Development Mechanism projects has effectively allowed for the roll-out of low or no carbon technologies to poor communities on the basis of future avoided emissions. We are at a critical juncture in social and environmental development and there are opportunities to take strategic decisions and targeted action to harmonise these objectives. Linking NAMAs and poverty, whether these actions are funded by public funds or market mechanisms, will be crucial in the future of the climate regime.

For more details and background information on the South African study, please read the report; Estimating greenhouse gas emissions associated with achieving universal access to electricity in South Africa written by  Louise Tait and Harald Winkler.

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The image used is courtesy of Petr Kovar.

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