CAN10 Narasimha1

A Decent Living, a Livable Planet

Narasimha Rao has spent much of his career showing that poverty in the developing world can be eradicated without making climate change worse. Now he wants those insights to be translated into real policy.
Growing up in Mumbai, India, Narasimha Rao understood he was one of the lucky ones. In a crowded city where more than half the population live in slums, Rao enjoyed a stable home and attended a small, private school where he was exposed to global issues at a young age. But seeing poverty all around him each day was unsettling and confusing. Many of the people he knew were desensitized to the problem. For them, the poor were a reminder of what could happen to them in a city where millions of people were chasing few opportunities; others simply could not grasp the scale and complexity of the challenge, let alone how to actually do something about it.

Rao had a different reaction. From an early age he had a desire to understand and reduce inequality. With an interest in engineering, he was drawn to technology and development as a potential solution. “At MIT, while I was getting my master’s, I first got interested in advances in information technology as something of an equalizer that might provide developing countries an opportunity to leapfrog,” he said recently. “But then I took courses on energy, and I was gripped by the challenge of sustainable development, particularly in emerging economies that needed growth. It raised puzzles, both intellectual and moral, that seemed unaddressed in the discourse.”

Rao, who last year joined the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies as assistant professor of energy systems, now studies energy and development in the context of climate change — particularly the social impacts of evolving energy policy on developing countries. Since 2015, he has also led a project, Decent Living Energy, which helps quantify the energy needs — and climate impacts — of eradicating poverty in India, Brazil, and South Africa. In a recent interview, he described his innovative approach to understanding the relationship between energy and poverty, its implications on an increasingly crowded planet, and how society can help improve the lives of billions of people without exacerbating global warming.
We have been trying to understand the energy required to meet basic needs for decades, since the oil crises of the 1970s. But we didn’t have the tools to do a rigorous assessment. Now we do.
— Narasimha Rao, assistant professor of energy systems
The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

Early in your career you were working as a technical consultant in the electricity sector. But you’ve said a return to India as a visiting faculty member changed your career path. What did you see?

Narasimha Rao: Well, India was going through significant economic reform, liberalizing the electricity and other infrastructure sectors. The first thing I saw was that policy measures prioritized accelerating private investment and maintaining financial viability for service providers, but to the neglect of environmental and social protection. This focus neglected extending minimum standards of service to all and failed to balance risk allocation in contractual arrangements. So I started to use the academic platform to encourage reasoned debate and transparency around reform. I had fascinating experiences in the classroom around controversial infrastructure projects where I invited both project sponsors and opposing environmental NGOs, who presented their own versions of reality to baffled graduate students. I saw a role for myself as an interdisciplinary scholar who could competently address both technical and equity aspects of infrastructure development.
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© Matthew Garrett
As the climate change question gained international attention, the first reaction of many in India was to adopt a head-in-the-sand attitude that this was the developed world’s problem — “they created it; we’ve got to develop and grow.” Yes, sure. But in a country with over a billion people that is expected to rapidly raise living standards, the risk of locking in unsustainable development was too great to ignore the problem entirely. This posed interesting contradictions: Individuals on their own were poor, but collectively they could contribute significantly to climate change. The scope for sustainable growth is vast, but knowledge and capital is scarce. How can a country that is developing quickly maintain its rights to develop and grow but also take responsibility for being part of the solution? This was a really interesting moral and intellectual challenge to me that had not been adequately addressed in the academic discourse.

How does the Decent Living Energy project contribute to this discourse?

Rao: The project addresses several research gaps. We have been trying to understand the energy required to meet basic needs for decades, since the oil crises of the 1970s. But we didn’t have the tools to do a rigorous assessment. Now we do. This knowledge helps in energy planning and also for mitigating climate change. We want to know whether there is a conflict between basic human development and mitigating climate change: Can we reduce energy use to meet the ambitions of the Paris climate agreement without compromising people’s basic needs? Most of the global models’ scenarios of climate mitigation think of energy demand simply as a function of economic growth and technology as the primary tool for achieving climate mitigation, both in terms of transforming the supply system and end-use equipment. These are idealized trajectories of technology diffusion across the world without consideration, first of all, of whether it was affordable and feasible. But also whether projected energy demands bear any relation to what you actually need for poverty eradication.

I wanted to turn this research on its head a little bit: Let’s first look at what poverty eradication is, what it entails. What do decent living standards look like? And then what are the implications for resource use, considering low-cost sustainable strategies? Then we compare that with the top-down view that has prevailed in the research community.

What have you found?

Rao: In the case studies I’ve done, it seems that for these countries the expectations for energy growth are sufficient for providing basic living standards, even in a world with only 2 degrees Celsius of warming. But it leaves different levels of headroom for further growth in terms of quality of life, and that raises equity issues as well. Why is it this country is squeezed in terms of energy demand that allows for basic living quality standards whereas other countries have ample room? What does this imply for technology diffusion? We also found significant opportunities in these countries for growing sustainably, with less emissions.

What are some of the baseline components of a ‘decent living’?

Rao: A lot of them are commonplace: food, clothing, shelter, water, and sanitation. But even within those factors there are nuances. When you talk about shelter, for instance, we need to consider providing basic comfort — such as maintaining a home at a certain temperature and humidity, which of course has implications for energy use. There are 2 to 3 billion people who may need air conditioning to have basic comfort. That’s something, for example, that some people find hard to stomach. They’re more concerned about 700 million air conditioners being sold in the next 20 years as being a threat to climate change. But the concentration of people who don’t have access to that are in regions that will feel the worst effects of climate change. We also include the means for social affiliation in modern society — cell phones and internet access. This turns out to be relatively benign for climate.

Your research has found that achieving these standards doesn’t require a significant rise in carbon emissions. How can government help achieve that?

Rao: The two areas that are the most resource intensive — and have the most potential for ballooning in terms of energy use — are buildings and transportation. Smart policies would encourage efficient new buildings, especially in developing countries where a good share of the future building stock largely remains unbuilt. We found, for example, that certain materials that are locally sourced are cheaper and more efficient — they would reduce emissions compared with best practices today for construction, which often uses conventional masonry. Then there is mobility, which is a bit of a no-brainer. People understand that public transit is just better all around. It’s more energy efficient, it reduces congestion, it reduces pollution. But it also requires capital investment. For the world’s new cities, investing in public transit is important — particularly in bus transit and dedicated lanes for buses. These are a couple of key areas, but there are others.
Fall 2019 Canopy cover image
This article was originally published in the fall 2019 edition of Canopy magazine
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Narasimha Rao, in rear, with students at a school in Uttar Pradesh in India.
Balanced diets with coarse grains, for instance, can improve nutrition and reduce emissions. Sustainable consumption with rising income will also be critical. We have shown that minimal levels of air conditioning and basic information and communications technology can have a negligible impact on climate. However, we also know that indiscriminate use of air conditioning and the proliferation of electronic gadgets are significant contributors to growth in energy demand among the affluent.

Is this growing knowledge about the complex relationship between energy and poverty having a positive change?

I think it is coming slowly. The number of papers being written and presented in conferences in this field have grown. We have seen interest from policymakers in this research. This can attract funding for projects that pull in resources for developing countries. I’m hoping there will be more spillover from the academic research to the real world, in national energy policy and international climate negotiations. If you ask me where I see the biggest potential for its use, it’s that.
PUBLISHED: January 9, 2020
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.