Why we need a more ambitious global energy target

Guest Author
Two girls are sitting in a dark field in front of unlit houses. One of them is struggling to read while the other holds up a lightbulb with a growing plant inside, eliminating the darkness.
Illustration by Nadya Nickels.

Everyone needs modern energy to reach their full potential. Every economy needs low-cost reliable energy at scale to be competitive and to create well-paying jobs. That’s why the world has committed to achieving universal energy access. But this laudable global goal won’t deliver the expected benefits if we don’t update the way we track progress. 

Without a new approach, we will leave billions of people behind — and drive an even bigger wedge between rich and poor nations over climate policy. That’s why we need to embrace what my colleagues and I call the Modern Energy Minimum.

Imagine for a moment that the world set a goal of building an educated global workforce for the digital economy, but chose to measure success as everyone being able to read a complete sentence. Basic literacy is essential of course, but completely insufficient. 

We’re making a similar mistake with energy. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7) is to ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.’ This is a worthy aspiration. Yet, the primary target for electricity is to reach 100% access at home, defined as at least 50 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per person per year in rural areas (or 100 kWh for those living in cities). 

Everyone needs basic electricity at home, but this target is insufficient in at least two ways. 

  • Our target is too low. This level of electricity use can power a few light bulbs and maybe a small fan. It cannot power most household appliances nor even a single refrigerator. For comparison, my suburban American home with five people uses more than 50 kWh per day.   
  • Our target is too narrow. About 70 percent of electricity is used not at home but in industry, commerce, agriculture and, increasingly, transportation. Electricity consumption in these non-residential sectors can drive higher incomes, job creation and national economic goals like industrialization. The UN measure doesn’t cover any of these energy uses.

UN goals matter because they shape policies, affect public investment decisions and guide philanthropic efforts. Aiming too low shortchanges billions of people — and reinforces global energy inequality. 

Fortunately, a new global target proposed by the Energy for Growth Hub and the Rockefeller Foundation can provide that next step after basic access. The ‘Modern Energy Minimum’ is a 1,000 kWh per person threshold that covers at least 300 kWh of electricity used in the home and an average of no less than 700 kWh in the wider economy. The Minimum provides a more ambitious vision that, when reached, would allow people to live more modern lives at home by having sufficient energy to run machines like computers and refrigerators that people in the wealthy world take for granted.  

Source: Energy for Growth Hub, Our World in Data • Data is from 2022.

Just as importantly, the Modern Energy Minimum covers higher electricity use in the productive sectors of the economy. The idea here is to help relieve unreliable power as an obstacle to economic growth, which is sadly still a top constraint across Africa and many parts of Asia.  

Employment is an eternal priority for every country on the planet. Getting every economy to at least the Modern Energy Minimum would unleash job creation and higher incomes, especially in energy-hungry countries like Nigeria, Pakistan or Tanzania where young people face a bleak labor market.  

Indeed, electricity use and higher incomes are tightly related across time and geographies. The 100 kWh per capita level is correlated with less than $1 per day, while 1,000 kWh is equivalent to nearly $7 per day, a first rung of the global middle class.  

The Modern Energy Minimum is starting to catch on. The $10 billion philanthropy-led Global Energy Alliance for People and Planet is using this metric as its primary eligibility criterion to determine where to invest. African energy ministers have endorsed the 1,000 kWh goal, while more governments around the world are aligning their energy targets with their employment and industrial goals.  

Reaching the Modern Energy Minimum for everyone on the planet is of course a much heavier lift than the current access target. It will take longer and require far more investment. But aiming higher will help to align energy goals with other employment and poverty reduction objectives — and thus live up to the original vision of the sustainable development goal. 

The benefits of aiming higher on energy use also extend to climate negotiations. The tensions over future carbon emissions are essentially about mistrust that rich-world climate goals could unfairly block development in poorer nations. Equating modern energy with a few light bulbs reinforces such fears.   

Revising global energy goals upward would establish a new baseline, underscoring the right to equitable development for all nations and help put the world on track to meet both our collective development and climate goals.