In my previous post, I described the Scylla and Charybdis between which humanity must sail in the 21st century — energy poverty and climate change — and recounted a recent debate about how best to tack between them. This post digs a little deeper into that debate. How do we get electricity to the world’s poor without pushing into climate catastrophe?

Like all large systems, energy infrastructure is acutely subject to path dependence; once it’s in place, it’s difficult to change course. That’s one reason transitioning to low-carbon alternatives is so difficult in industrialized countries — there’s lots of money invested in existing assets and lots of powerful stakeholders who stand to lose if those assets are depreciated.

In areas of energy poverty, however, there is little-to-no such infrastructure. Choices made in those parts of the world today, at the front end of growth, will influence the course of global energy and carbon emissions for decades to come. So those choices are hugely important.