Academic journal article Rural Society

Climbing without the Energy Ladder: Limitations of Rural Energy Development for Forest Conservation

Academic journal article Rural Society

Climbing without the Energy Ladder: Limitations of Rural Energy Development for Forest Conservation

Article excerpt

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In the 1960s China adopted a strategy of employing small-scale energy development projects in rural areas as part of Mao Zedong's modern vision of industrializing the countryside. Since then these projects have moved beyond their historic production-oriented beginnings to encompass not only economic and social, but also environmental aims. In southwest China, the Chinese government has touted small-scale hydro-electric projects as an effective means of forest conservation - claiming that even where forest rehabilitation efforts had failed, this strategy proved successful (Mao & Xiang, 1991). The basic premise is that reliance on biomass fuels has detrimental effects on the environment (Smil, 1993), both shaping and supporting a fuelwood crisis. By providing households with access to an alternative fuel from which they can reduce dependence on biomass resources, rural electrification offers itself as a potential strategy for decreasing pressure on forestlands. Based on the framework outlined by the energy ladder this logic is sound. However, the energy ladder does not always reflect actual household fuel use dynamics, thus presenting major implications for the use of rural energy development as a strategy for forest conservation.

The energy ladder provides a theoretical framework for explaining the transition from traditional to modern fuels and devices inside households. From the bottom rung of inefficient traditional fuels (e.g. crop residues, fuelwood, dung) through fossil fuels (e.g. kerosene and gas) to the top rung of efficient modern fuels (e.g. electricity), the ladder sets out a progressive trajectory where users move towards what are considered more efficient and clean fuels, and away from less efficient and dirty fuels. It proposes that with increasing affluence, households not only shift to more modern energy fuels for vital services, but additionally they acquire more advanced technologies, including information and communication devices, cooling, and other appliances (Figure 1). Essentially, the energy ladder is an adapted version of the economic theory of the consumer, which states 'as income rises households consume not only more of the same good, but they also shift to consuming higher quality goods' (Hosier & Dowd, 1987).

This framework is supported by a set of literature that addresses availability and affordability. These two factors have historically revealed a positive response in consumers abandoning traditional fuels and climbing the ladder toward higher-quality fuel-stove combinations (Holdren & Smith, 2000; Goldemberg, 2000). The availability of energy resource is found to be tightly linked to the present state of the rural economy and living standards (Wang & Fend, 1996). While scarcity in fuelwood encourages the use of alternatives (Kaul & Liu, 1992), consuming such fuels is only economically logical for those living in high-income areas, where residents can buy commercial energy as an alternative to collecting fuelwood themselves (Wang & Fend, 1996). Any transition to modern commercial fuels is, thus, constrained by the local and household economy. Following the school of 'rational' thought, if the good (here, electricity) is sufficiently cheap and reliable, and if given enough time, there should be a positive response to its consumption (Bose, 1993). Centered on the prohibitive and affordable nature of a fuel switch, these studies underwrite the energy ladder as an inevitable development that frees users from the backward practices of fuelwood use.

The ladder framework, however, has received wide criticism for its simple and unidirectional portrayal of rural energy development. Even when amended to include more economic and social considerations, the energy ladder framework remains a linear progression in which increasing affluence guides households from traditional to modern fuel use. …

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