Smart policies for sustainability

Effective climate policy is a vital sustainability goal but it must also be balanced against improving energy access and reducing poverty. For instance, unless they are carefully designed, new climate policies in Asia could push access to modern energy out of reach for millions in the region, research from the IIASA Energy Program (ENE) has found. The team also examined how eliminating poverty will affect energy use and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

The Sustainable Development Goals aim to achieve universal access to modern energy by 2030—but they also call for urgent action to combat climate change. An ENE study focused on this issue in South Asia, where 72% of the population relies on solid fuels for cooking—causing air pollution and related health problems. It showed that by 2030 that could be reduced to 35% on the current trajectory. But with climate policies and no energy access policies, 336 million people would be unable to afford the switch modern fuels [1].

A further study examined kerosene subsidies, initially designed to help those without electricity but now hampering the shift to clean energy. In India 64% of kerosene used for lighting is supplementary to electricity, the research showed, which means that simply increasing electricity access without improving reliability will only reduce the kerosene used by a small amount [2]. Instead, eliminating subsidies by 2030 could reduce kerosene use by 97%, and would also benefit the economy, since the deadweight loss—a measure of economic inefficiency—of the subsidy is US$200–950 million. The solution, the researchers say, is to shift subsides towards improving electricity reliability and cleaner lighting technologies.

Energy access policy cost-effectiveness under baseline and climate mitigation scenarios [1].


Addressing energy access, however, is only a first step in combating energy poverty. The Decent Living Energy project goes beyond energy access and aims to quantify the energy needs and related climate change impacts of eradicating poverty and providing decent living standards to all.

Under the project, ENE researchers clearly defined for the first time the material requirements needed for human wellbeing. These include things in the home, such as food and cooking equipment, but also extend to societal level, including the infrastructure needed, such as roads. The definition helps policymakers set fair wages and quantify environmental impact [3].

To understand how eliminating poverty will affect energy use and GHG emissions, researchers also examined how household consumption and energy use increases with rising income.

One study examined what makes people more likely to own household technologies like washing machines, which use a lot of electricity. Examining data from IIASA member countries Brazil, India, and South Africa, they found that the appliances people buy depend not only on their income, but also factors such as race, culture, and wealth in terms of assets like cars, which can secure loans when income alone cannot [4]. A second analysis, using carbon footprinting for Brazilian and Indian households, revealed that the amount of energy used through consumption is largely constant across income groups. This challenges conventional wisdom that poverty eradication would cause a large increase in emissions [5].

Finally, the team investigated how living standards rise with economic growth. As incomes increase in developing countries, access to amenities such as electricity, clean cooking energy, water, and sanitation also improves but not uniformly, and not as quickly as income growth [6][7]. Access to clean cooking energy and sanitation lagged behind access to electricity and water, a finding which has an outsize impact on the poorest, especially women.


[1] Cameron C, Pachauri S, Rao N, McCollum D, Rogelj J, & Riahi K (2016). Policy trade-offs between climate mitigation and clean cook-stove access in South Asia. Nature Energy 1: e15010.

[2] Lam NL, Pachauri S, Purohit P, Nagai Y, Bates MN, Cameron C, & Smith Kirk R (2016). Kerosene subsidies for household lighting in India: what are the impacts? Environmental Research Letters 11 (4): 044014.

[3] Rao, ND & Min J (2017) Decent living standards: material requirements for basic human wellbeing. Social Indicators Research. In review.

[4] Rao ND & Ummel K (2017). White goods for white people? Drivers of electric appliance growth in emerging economies. Energy Research & Social Science 27: 106-116.

[5] Min J & Rao ND (2017) Estimating uncertainty in household energy footprints: The cases of Brazil and India, Journal of Industrial Ecology. In review.

[6] Rao N & Pachauri S (2017). Energy access and living standards: some observations on recent trends. Environmental Research Letters.

[7] Steckel JC, Rao ND, & Jakob M (2017). Access to infrastructure services: Global trends and drivers. Utilities Policy: 1-9.


  • Research for the Nature Energy article was done with funding support from the project Advanced Model Development and Validation for Improved Analysis of Costs and Impacts of Mitigation Policies.
  • Nick Lam, Postdoctoral Research Associate at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • Kirk Smith, Household Energy, Climate and Health Research Group, University of California, Berkeley
  • Lucas Chancel, Paris School of Economics, France
  • Ian Gough, London School of Economics, UK
  • Joaquim Guilhoto and Luis Tudeschini, University of São Paulo, Brazil
  • Ruth DeFries, Columbia University, USA
  • Suparna Ghosh-Jerath, Indian Institute for Public Health, New Delhi, India
  • Jessica Fanzo, Johns Hopkins University, USA

Further information

MESSAGE-Access model