There is very little elaboration in literature of the phrase “equitable access to sustainable development” that is referenced in the Cancun Agreement on climate change. We interpret this at a minimum as people’s right to a decent living standard, which gives rise to claims by countries to an exemption from mitigation for the energy and emissions needed to provide a decent life to all. We elaborate a conceptual framework for a comprehensive quantification of such an energy requirement, including the energy required to build out infrastructure to support these living standards. We interpret decent living as the consumption by households of a set of basic goods including adequate nutrition, shelter, health care, education, transport, refrigeration, television and mobile phones. We develop universal indicators for these activities and their infrastructure requirements, and specify a methodology to convert these to energy requirements using energy input-output analysis. Our main recommendations include estimating bottom-up, country-specific energy and emissions requirements, incorporating a minimum for methane emissions, and using international benchmarks at the sector level to encourage the reduction of countries’ energy and emissions intensity.