Ensuring a decent standard of living for all

How much energy growth and what climate impacts are associated with meeting basic human needs? Bottom-up modeling of energy demand requirements in three countries–Brazil, India, and South Africa–shows that current energy supply could provide decent living standards if equitably used. A number of studies by IIASA researchers revealed opportunities for improving living standards while lowering emissions growth.

The Decent Living Energy (DLE) project quantifies the relationship between basic human wellbeing, energy demand, and greenhouse gases. In 2017, the project completed a methodological tool to measure the energy needs for poverty eradication and applied it in Brazil, India, and South Africa to generate policy-relevant insights on the energy needs for poverty eradication in different national contexts. The methodology builds on a conceptualization of material requirements of human wellbeing, or decent living standards [1]. It applies a set of tools from industrial ecology–including multi-region, input-output and lifecycle analysis, and building simulation models–to trace the energy use through the economy, to quantify the energy use associated with the goods and services needed to meet basic needs.

Illustrative energy requirements to provide decent living standards in India and Brazil, showing capital turnover and operating energy. Note: Space conditioning includes hot water production.

These methodological advances have made it possible for researchers to quantify the energy needs for meeting gaps in housing, nutrition, and health and education [2][3], and to reveal limitations in demand-side modeling in integrated assessment research [4].

DLE also investigated past trends in achieving living standards and related energy consumption patterns [5][6][7]. This research shows that income is a crude predictor of household appliance uptake in emerging economies, and that affordability and culture play a significant role. Although living standards have improved across the world due to growing income, clean cooking and improved sanitation consistently lag behind electricity and improved water provision. The researchers found that these gaps affect women’s health in particular.

The energy needs for meeting the gaps in living standards are dominated by the construction of safe homes and transport infrastructure to provide mobility to all [3][8]. What is particularly important for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is that basic needs, such as food, education, health care, and basic utilities, are relatively inexpensive in energy terms. Another piece of good news is that micronutrient deficiencies in India, which affects over two-thirds of Indians, can be reduced by shifting cereal consumption from rice to coarse cereals, which would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions [9]. This work was presented to policymakers in India who are evaluating alternative pricing policies for cereals.

Going forward, this work will facilitate a country wise assessment of the synergies between mitigating climate change and achieving other SDGs. Additionally, it will provide a foundation for future research on building energy demand projections from end-use services, rather than from GDP. DLE research outcomes generate policy insights on the synergies between energy planning, climate mitigation, and social development goals.


[1] Rao ND, Min J (2017). Decent living standards: material requirements for basic human wellbeing. Social Indicators Research, 1-20.

[2] Min J, Rao ND (2017). Estimating uncertainty in household energy footprints. Journal of Industrial Ecology. (In Press)

[3] Mastrucci A & Rao ND (2017). Decent housing in the developing world: Reducing life-cycle energy requirements. Energy and Buildings 152, 629-642.

[4] Rao ND, Ruijven BV, Riahi K, Bosetti V (2017). Improving poverty and inequality modeling in climate research. Nature Climate Change 7(12), 857-862.

[5] Rao ND, Ummel K (2017). White goods for white people? Drivers of electric appliance growth in emerging economies. Energy Research and Social Science 27.

[6] Steckel J, Rao ND, Jakob M (2017). Access to infrastructure services: Global trends and drivers. Utilities Policy 45,109-117.

[7] Rao ND, Pachauri S (2017). Energy access and living standards: Some observations on recent trends. Environmental Research Letters, 12 (2): e025011.

[8] Mastrucci A, Rao ND, Bridging the Indian housing gap: Lowering costs and CO2 emissions. Building Research and Information (In Review)

[9] Rao, ND, Min J, DeFries R, Ghosh SH, Valin H, Fanzo J (2018). Healthy, affordable and climate-friendly diets in India. Global Environmental Change, 49: 154-165.

IIASA Contributors


  • Columbia University, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology, USA
  • Indian Institute for Public Health, India
  • Harvard University, USA
  • London School of Economics, UK
  • University of Sao Paolo, Brazil
  • Norway Institute for Science and Technology (NTNU), Norway

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