Providing a decent standard of living for all people on Earth would take less energy than the current global demand—provided a concern for equity takes centre stage, an international team of researchers says.
“Building the new infrastructure to fill the DLS [decent living standard] gaps that exist today and for future populations would require in total about 290 EJ (exajoules) of cumulative energy by 2040, which is around three-quarters of global annual energy use today,” write the authors of the study, recently published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
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And “greater attention to equity would significantly reduce the need for growth,” they add, even though “the required rate of increase in energy to provide decent living for all in the coming two decades would be unprecedented for many countries.”
While efforts to more fully define DLS have been undertaken in the past, they’ve been limited by a failure to account for regional gaps in living standards—meaning that the energy required to deliver a decent standard can differ by up to a factor of four based on location. That’s due to differences in climate, levels of urbanization, diet, and infrastructure, especially for transport.
Yet decent living standards “have served as the foundation for estimating the amount of energy hypothetically required for decent living,” alongside standards for adequate shelter, warmth, and nutrition, as well as “water and sanitation for hygiene, clean cookstoves and cold storage, health and education, communication technologies, and adequate physical mobility through motorized transport.”
Through their research, the authors found that “the highest shares of population living below DLS are found in sub-Saharan African countries, where, on average, over 60% of the population does not meet DLS thresholds for more than half of the decent living indicators (household appliances, cooling, housing, sanitation, transport, and water access).” Sub-Saharan countries also suffer huge gaps in education and nutrition, at 33% and 17%, respectively.
South and Pacific Asia had “large gaps”, as well, especially in clean cooking and heating, where the heavy use of “traditional biomass” leads to poor health. “Decent living gaps” were also found in Eastern Europe, where 25% of the population relies on coal for heating.
While wealthier regions like Western Europe and North America are generally doing very well by DLS standards, “there are significant population shares without safely managed sanitation services.”
But “all countries in the Global South show higher head counts for DLS gaps than for extreme income poverty,” confirming the urgent need for new capital infrastructure to provide the food, education, and better health that a few dollars might buy.
Digging into the 290 EJ of cumulative energy that would be needed to achieve universal DLS by 2040, the authors calculate that “roughly half of this amount is required to replace substandard housing, and a quarter to build transport infrastructure, mainly public transit, to enable everyone to enjoy a minimum level of mobility to meet their basic needs.” But “the energy for building the infrastructure to support good health, hygiene, and nutrition is less than the energy required to enable faster socialization, including education.”
Actually reaching a universal DLS will require “either unprecedented rates of total energy demand growth or more equitably distributed growth” for most countries, the authors add. “For many poor countries in Africa a combination of both is likely essential.”