Renewable energy can reduce carbon emissions but can also have the knock-on effect of increasing inequality, new research has found.
A study of 175 nations from 1990 to 2014 published in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, supports previous claims by academics that renewable energy consumption may be increasing financial pressure on lower-income families in Western countries.
This can lead to energy poverty, leaving households with no or inadequate access to energy services like heating, cooling or lighting.
‘People who are just making ends meet and can barely afford their energy bills will make a choice between food and their energy,’ said Julius McGee, assistant professor of sociology at Portland State University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and co-author of the study.
‘We don’t think of energy as a human right when it actually is. The things that consume the most energy in your household — heating, cooling, refrigeration — are the things you absolutely need.’
The researchers highlighted the USA as a nation where the move from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy is coming at the cost of increased inequality.
This is because the country is largely encouraging people to move to renewable sources through financial incentives like tax subsidies, the researchers found.
Such subsidies reduce energy costs for those who can afford to install energy-friendly appliances, but drive up the price of fossil fuel utilities for those who rely on them, leading to increased pressure and even energy poverty for low-income families, the study said.
In contrast, the study found renewable energy helps reduce energy poverty in rural communities in south-east Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, as it gives rural communities access to electricity they never previously had, but it has relatively little impact on reducing carbon emissions.
‘We really need to think more holistically about how we address renewable energy,’ McGee said.
‘We need to be focusing on addressing concerns around housing and energy poverty before we actually think about addressing climate change within the confines of a consumer sovereignty model.’
Policy-makers should consider introducing policies that aim to reduce both carbon emissions and inequality, the study recommended.
Researchers said that such policies would both encourage the take-up of renewable energy sources and protect communities which are most vulnerable to energy poverty.
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