Scenes Of Beijing - The Host City Of The 2008 Olympics

Resident burns a coal stove at an old neighborhood on June 13, 2008 in Beijing, China. The coal stoves are still used for cooking by Beijing’s poorer residents and contribute to heavy pollution in China’s capital.

In anticipation of the UN Climate Summit, the majority of media coverage around the event has been delivered from the perspective of industrialized and relatively wealthy countries. In an attempt to offer a new perspective, let’s take a look at international climate negotiations through the lens of a country that doesn’t always expect the lights to turn on every time they flick the switch, countries often referred to as ‘developing’ or ‘third-world’.

For the purpose of this article, let’s break the world we live in today into three groups: 1. Those that absolutely expect the lights to come on every time they hit the switch; 2. Those that expect the lights to come on, but are highly sensitive to the price of electricity; and 3. Those who are all too accustomed to power outages and unreliable access to electricity.

Depending on how you measure it, the World Bank shows that there are roughly five to six dozen countries that comprise this first group. Members of this selective collection of countries are either rich, lucky or both. What do I mean by lucky? They have a rich resource endowment, with easily accessible energy – in most cases hydrocarbons – lying under the feet of their citizens. Some of these nations include Venezuela, Algeria, Bolivia, Iraq, and Malaysia. The rest are wealthy enough to provide access to their citizens, even if they are poorly endowed in resources. Two examples are South Korea and Japan.

Depending on your measure, the second group of countries that expect access to electricity, but are very sensitive to electricity price, is also a constantly fluctuating list. These nations, sometimes linked to their ‘fuel poverty’ because their citizens to have to pay a disproportionately high percentage of their disposable income on electricity bills, include Bulgaria, Portugal, Lithuania, Romania, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, and Poland. Recently, the governments of United Kingdom and Germany have become increasingly concerned about the growing number of its citizens who are struggling to pay their utility bills.

As the World Bank also shows, there is a long list of countries that do not have adequate or reliable access to electricity. Here are a few, along with the percentage of population that does not have access to electricity: Afghanistan (70 percent), Bangladesh (53 percent), Cambodia (68 percent), Democratic Republic of Congo (84 percent), Ethiopia (77 percent), Haiti (80 percent), and Uganda (91 percent).

With 1.2 billion lacking access to electricity, along with about 2.8 billion using solid fuels (wood, charcoal, and dung) for cooking, energy poverty remains one of the most urgent issues that is sometimes overshadowed by the subject of climate change. While the debate continues on which forms of electricity production should be built for these countries, it is clear that a very large amount of electricity will need to come online in order to meet future demands.

In the last few decades a few countries have quickly transformed from energy poor to an improved standard of living, with adequate supply and reliable access to electricity, including China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. China’s electricity growth and accompanying statistics are staggering.

Dr. Frank Clemente, Professor Emeritus at Penn State University, explained the monumental growth rather succinctly: Since 1990, China has lifted 650 million people out of poverty, reduced female illiteracy by nearly 80 percent and decreased infant mortality by 70 percent.

Vietnam’s electricity growth is also impressive. The ratio of its population in poverty fell from 58 percent in 1993 to 17.2 percent in 2012, and over 95 percent of Vietnam’s population now has access to adequate and reliable electricity. China and Vietnam are the envy of the large group of countries with large populations that still lack access to electricity, have high poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality rates.

Circling back to this month’s climate summit, it is evident that each of these groups will enter the summit with different priorities and end goals. The first group, with high levels of (relatively cheap) electricity access, might be the leading advocates for a legally-binding agreement to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and staunchly argue that new electricity sources in all countries should be sourced from low or non-carbon emitting forms of power production.

Nations that are currently included in the second group, facing ‘fuel poverty’, might be a bit more cautious when advocating for GHG reduction plans, especially countries (like Spain and Germany) that have seen a recent and dramatic rise in electricity prices as a result of domestic GHG reduction plans.

Lastly, the third group, which is the largest and the most poor. Those who still lack adequate and reliable access to electricity might be hesitant and concerned about a global, legally-binding agreement, which could result from this round of climate talks. Even though some of these countries are among the most affected by climate change, they also face the highest levels of energy poverty today. Any limit or environmental mandate that could limit or delay their country’s energy development could be seen as a threat to their sovereignty and overall advancement.

Chris Pedersen is the Managing Director of U.S. Operations for Oak Leaf Energy Training Inc., an energy education firm with offices in Houston and Calgary. Chris is a California native, completing his undergraduate degree in International Relations at the University of California at Santa Cruz. While obtaining a graduate degree in Energy Policy at New York University, Chris studied the highly integrated and interdependent relationship between the United States and Canada concerning oil, gas, and electricity. Chris is an Energy Risk Professional – Certified by the Global Association of Risk Professionals.