Jul 13, 2019 06:36 AM EDT
In a new study from Portland State University, efforts to shift away from fossil fuels and replace oil and coal with renewable energy sources can help reduce carbon emissions but do so at the expense of increased inequality.
The co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology in PSU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Julius McGee, and an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University, Patrick Greiner, discovered in a study of 175 nations from 1990 that renewable energy consumption reduces carbon emission more effectively when it occurs in a context of increasing inequality. Conversely, it reduces emissions to a lesser degree when occurring in a context of decreasing bias.
The researchers published their findings in the journal Energy Research & Social Science, and they support previous claims by researchers who argue that renewable energy consumption may be indirectly driving energy poverty. Energy poverty happens when a household has no or inadequate access to energy services such as heating, cooling, lighting, and use of appliances due to a combination of factors: low income, increasing utility rates, and inefficient buildings and appliances.
According to McGee, in nations like the United States where fossil fuel energy is substituted for renewable energy as a way to reduce carbon emissions, it comes at the cost of increased inequality. That is because the shift to renewable energy is done through incentives such as tax subsidies. This situation reduces energy costs for homeowners who can afford to install solar panels or energy-efficient appliances, but it also serves to drive up the prices of fossil fuel energy as utility companies seek to replace losses. That means increased utility bills for the rest of the customers, and for many low-income families, increased financial pressure, which creates energy poverty.
McGee further noted that people who are just making ends meet and can barely afford their energy bills would choose between food and their energy. We don't think of energy as a human right when it is. The things that consume the most energy in your household, heating, cooling, refrigeration, are the things you need.
McGee said that optionally, in poorer nations, renewable sources of electricity have been used to alleviate energy poverty. In rural areas in southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, a solar farm can give agrarian community access to electricity that historically never had access to energy. He said that's not having any impact on carbon dioxide emissions because those rural communities never used fossil fuels in the first place.
McGee concluded that there is a need to think more holistically about how we address renewable energy. There is a need to focus on addressing concerns around housing and energy poverty before we think about addressing climate change within the confines of consumer sovereignty models.
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