Decent living for all: Can we meet basic needs and save the planet?

Unsplash, Shashank Hudkar

Decent living for all: Can we meet basic needs and save the planet?

What are the requirements of “decent living”, and how much energy do we need to meet them? New research shows that decent living standards can be achieved in a warming world. Going beyond the minimum standards, however, may require a change of lifestyles.

Rao, Narasimha D., Jihoon Min, and Alessio Mastrucci. “Energy Requirements for Decent Living in India, Brazil and South Africa.” Nature Energy 4, no. 12 (December 2019): 1025–32.

Modern life, with its many comforts and practicalities, relies on the extensive use of energy. While many places in the world need more energy to achieve higher standards of living, many countries still struggle to provide their populations with basic needs. As governments work towards a future with no extreme poverty, one inadequately addressed question remains essential: the amount of energy required to meet basic needs for all. With the threat of climate change looming, the pressure to limit energy consumption adds another dimension to this challenge. Can we provide for everyone’s basic needs without exceeding our carbon budget for a two degrees Celsius rise in global temperatures?

In a recent study published in Nature Energy, Dr. Narasimha Rao and colleagues aimed to address these questions. The team quantified the energy requirements for India, Brazil, and South Africa, three countries which have met the standards of decent living to different extents. The research team calculated the energy demand required at the household level to meet these standards. They analyzed the material prerequisites for minimum wellbeing, which include adequate shelter, comfortable living temperature, nutrition, clean water, and public infrastructure.

Rao and colleagues found that the areas that require the most energy are mobility (51-60 percent of energy demand compatible with decent living), food production (21-27 percent), and housing (5-12 percent). Once infrastructure is built, the annual per capita energy requirement for a decent life is about 10–11 Gigajoules (GJ) in India, 14–16 GJ in South Africa and 19–21 GJ in Brazil. To put this in perspective, 1 GJ is enough energy to power one 60 Watt lightbulb for six months straight.

Interestingly, for the three countries included in the study, meeting decent living standards is compatible with 2 degrees Celsius warming scenarios, but to different degrees. India, which has the greatest distance to go to achieve decent living for its population, consumes most of its budget by meeting just the minimum standards. This signals that any future development will have to be less energy intensive. In the case of South Africa and Brazil, both countries can potentially go beyond the minimum before reaching their 2 degrees Celsius limit.

The researchers showed that lifestyles influence both wellbeing and energy demand. Compared to the energy needed to avoid heat stress, air conditioning luxury houses requires five times the minimum levels. In fact, achieving the minimum is not an energy challenge. Moving towards lifestyles characterized with extensive consumption and affluence will require substantially more energy than in any 2 degrees Celsius budget.

Importantly, the research shows that careful policy design can both enhance wellbeing and mitigate climate change. For instance, Rao and colleagues report that a third of household energy would be saved by upgrading poor quality housing with energy saving designs. Similarly, investment in public transportation can improve quality of life without an extreme rise in energy demand.

A decent life for all is indeed possible within planetary boundaries. However, if developing countries are expected to undertake significant climate change mitigation measures, their energy budget will be used mostly just to reach the minimum standards for universal wellbeing. Achieving an environmentally sound future thus requires extensive international collaboration and transfer of technology to ensure the developing world is well equipped to build a sustainable future for all.