Rapid expansion of electrical service in developing countries is a common concern in the climate change community. The aspiration for universal access to electric power is understandable; electricity is crucial to alleviation of poverty, but the accompanying increased burning of fossil fuels to supply that energy potentially hinders efforts to mitigate climate change.
A recent study in Nature Climate Change uses two national datasets to quantify the effects that this rapid expansion has had on CO2 emissions in India between 1981 and 2011. During this period, more than 650 million Indians gained access to electricity, of which two-thirds of the newly connected households were rural. Overall, less than 10% of the emissions growth was from households in the lowest quartile, while the richest quartile contributed about 50% of the emissions growth. CO2 emission growth was due to both increasing electricity use per household that was already connected, as well as increases in the number of households connected. However, the absolute effects of this large growth were relatively minor. Indeed, only 11-25% of Indian emissions growth since 1981 was due to increased access to electricity with the global impact being extremely minor. The authors recommend that low-carbon alternatives will have many other benefits for air quality, health, energy security and global competitiveness and should be promoted in India and elsewhere.
Pachauri, S., (2014). Household electricity access a trivial contributor to CO2 emissions growth in India. Nature Climate Change.