26 February 2014

Energy Development and Poor Nations

Dan Sarewitz (ASU) and I have an op-ed just out in the Financial Times. Here is how it starts:
Having failed to stem carbon emissions in rich countries or in rapidly industrialising ones, policy makers have focused their attention on the only remaining target: poor countries that do not emit much carbon to begin with.
My Twitter feed is aflutter with policy wonks debating the pluses and minuses of multilateral energy development aid and investment. There are good arguments to be had of course on all sides. The key difference as I see it is that all of these wonks are benefiting from the profligate consumption of fossil fueled energy while they have these debates.

It is great to say that we need to bring on line carbon-free energy -- and we should. It is also pretty easy to say that new carbon-intensive energy development should be limited if you are benefiting from already-existing carbon-intensive energy while we wait for alternatives, rather than living in dire energy poverty. You can see this trade-off discussed in the form of an exchange between Andy Revkin and Bill McKibben that I relate in The Climate Fix.

There is no case to be made here in my view. So long as countries such as the US are 87% fossil-fueled, UK 87%, Germany 83% (data from BP in 2012), there is little basis for expecting poor countries to develop any differently.

Have a read of our piece, we are happy to hear your reactions.


  1. Hi Roger,

    An excellent piece. A couple comments just because I like to argue. :-)

    Y'all wrote, "If we are to reduce emissions without condemning vast swaths of humanity to unending poverty, we will have to develop inexpensive, low-carbon energy technologies that are as appropriate for the US and Bulgaria as they are for Nigeria and Pakistan."

    It's not necessarily even the case that the same "inexpensive, low carbon energy technologies" are applicable all over the United States. For example, it's the word on the street (which is not necessarily true...but let's assume it is) that photovoltaics have already achieved "grid parity" in parts of California and all of Hawaii. And photovoltaics are unquestionably going to be competitive in Phoenix well before they are in Seattle.

    Similarly, there are parts of Pakistan that are excellent for photovoltaics, whereas most of Bulgaria is not:



    So it's not really appropriate to say that, for example, photovoltaics need to be appropriate for "the U.S." and Bulgaria as they are for Pakistan. The solar insolation levels are too different.

    Again, these comments are presented mainly because I like to argue. :-) I strongly agree with the gist of the piece.

  2. As I see it, there is a morality aspect to this issue.

    Poverty is certain, grinding and degrading for much of the world.

    Global warming is (especially given 17 years without warming) a speculative problem at worst and not even the worst environmental problem the world faces (malaria in Africa, lack of potable water are two more important problems that are both more urgent and "solvable").

    Roger, as you have pointed out many times, there is a direct correlation between energy consumption/prices and prosperity. To condemn the third world to high energy prices means perpetuating poverty. It is immoral to do this, especially for a speculative problem.

  3. It's nonsense to say that because parts of Pakistan may be good for photovoltaics that Pakistan should use photovoltaics.

    In a recent visit to advise the CEO of a corporation that provides urban services such as water supply, he told me the same. On that occasion I had tried to explain to him that his pump motors did not have capacitors and his engineers had modified the turbine blades instead. As a consequence he was using energy inefficiently because his power factor was far too low.

    He went of on a tangent about how he wanted to install solar panels to drive his pumps. I pointed out the capital cost for the land, infrastructure equipment. All to no avail.

    When renewables show they do not need subsidies, then let's discuss them again for developing countries, but in the meanwhile let us try to find some practical solutions that will work now, like developing natural gas, which I understand in Pakistan is an underutilized natural resource.

  4. How long before this article becomes publicly available (meaning no email-registration or payment before being able to view it)? I know I must sound like a complete curmudgeon, but yet another request to spam my in-box or keep tabs on me might as well be a paywall in my opinion. ;-)

    I'll get over it one day... and I do really want to read the article. But for now I'm holding out....

  5. Roger,

    Well done. It hits all the main points adeptly and makes a convincing case against forcing green-based energy schemes on poor countries. Hopefully the article will have an impact on changing the minds of those who control the funding sources poor countries require.

  6. So Roger, do you bring light to Africa by using a) small silicon arrays that each person can use b) small generators where you have to bring in the fuel c) building large transmission systems and central power stations?

    Small and efficient is cheap and beautiful. Developing countries have done better with cell phone systems than building out hard lines to each house.

  7. Hi Roger,

    Another in the long series of thoughtful articles addressing energy and development. Of course, you do pay a small price: you have probably dropped even lower in the esteem of Real Climate administrators.... and its shrill and arrogant denizens.

  8. The US is also replacing land lines with cellphones. We're not uncoupling from the electrical grid. It's a lousy analogy.

  9. "It's nonsense to say that because parts of Pakistan may be good for photovoltaics that Pakistan should use photovoltaics."

    Who wrote that "Pakistan should use photovoltaics"?

    I'm asking because I know *I* didn't. I think all people in Pakistan should use whatever energy source they want to use.

  10. "a) small silicon arrays that each person can use..."

    They can't use them if they can't afford them. How do you respond to the example given in the article:

    "A recent report from the non-profit Center for Global Development estimates that $10bn invested in renewable energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa could provide electricity for 30m people. If the same amount of money went into gas-fired generation, it would supply about 90m people – three times as many."

    Do you think it's right to spend money on renewable energy, even if three times as many people would benefit from the same amount of money spent on gas-fired generation?

  11. Couldn't the discussion also include issues other than energy development? The analogy is sometimes made that focusing on reducing emissions is like squeezing the bathtub faucet harder while the tub is about to overflow, when no one is thinking of pulling the drainplug.

    What's the available outlet in this analogy? SOIL. The global carbon balance is certainly out of balance with 400 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, so cutting emissions will help to reduce that proportion. Most urgent, though, is sequestering carbon where it is needed, to correct the cycle. Third world nations are the locus of a great deal of destruction of the biosphere's ability to sink carbon and buffer climate trends, with deforestation, desertification and industrial agriculture practices all laying waste to soil's carbon-rich organic matter.

  12. Mark said:

    "Do you think it's right to spend money on renewable energy, even if three times as many people would benefit from the same amount of money spent on gas-fired generation?"

    I don't. Does anyone?

  13. Small and efficient is cheap and beautiful. Developing countries have done better with cell phone systems than building out hard lines to each house.

    No, they haven't done better.

    They've done what they had to do to get phones that work. The reason they have cell systems is that the land-line business is locked out by useless monopolies, not because cell systems meet their needs better. They would be better off with land-lines, in most cases, but the option wasn't there.

    The next struggle will be to get them internet connections, and being on copper would be a huge advantage in that, because they could then build up to fibre.

    And that's assuming small is cheap. Usually small is expensive.

  14. I asked, "Do you think it's right to spend money on renewable energy, even if three times as many people would benefit from the same amount of money spent on gas-fired generation?"

    CharlesH responds, "I don't. Does anyone?"

    Well, I'm waiting for an answer from "Eli Rabett." My guess is that he'll never give a simple yes/no answer to that simple question.

  15. I'm not sure that there's anything I can say that I haven't said before except to say that when talking about Africa in particular there are a number of problems that will have to be solved along with access to energy to have Africa develop successfully and humanely.

    As Oprah discovered with her own efforts to fix some African problems: money, good intentions and even a good plan were not enough to make things work as originally envisioned. Africa is after all still Africa.

    Just because 'we' in the developed West can accept the inherent worth and dignity of every human being [and project that upon everyone else we lay eyes on] doesn't mean that everyone else you meet out there shares those values. To fall into that cognitive egocentrism is sure to lead to problems for your pet project.

    As an example, any 'scheme' to assist Africans by passing out solar panels and LED light bulbs is going to have to come to terms with the inevitable theft, loss, and breakage of that equipment and the inevitable black market that will develop around the reselling of those stolen panels back to the people they were stolen from. Its a kind of reality that has to be accounted for if you goal is that the project should continue to work and become self sustaining.

    A story my white, Quaker, Swarthmore educated, PhD from Columbia, Nigerian by marriage aunt told me once about the experience of her own sons' [my cousins] experiences being sent off to the 'good' public school [in the British colonialist sense of the word] in a different part of Nigeria from where they lived. The oldest son [my younger cousin] was sent off to school with all of the required equipment for the school year: mattress, blankets, towels, wash bucket, soap, all of those necessaries. When he arrives at school the older boys gang up on him, beat him up a bit and take all of his stuff. My aunt sends replacement stuff which is again immediately stolen. THREE TIMES! Things were easier for my younger cousins because they had an older brother to protect them, but the culture of systematic exploitation of the weak and more vulnerable by the more powerful continues, so far as I know, to this day. And, these were all the children of the elites, the people would grow up to be the country's educated middle and upper classes.

    Welcome to post-colonial Africa, at least as it was in the mid '70s. Maybe things have gotten better here or there, but from all I can gather from news reports is that civil polity even as it had been is under assault in many places, particularly in northern Africa.

    I could go on, but I'll leave off by fulfilling my usual role of stuck record by saying that a transfer of wealth and technology by itself will not suffice; there needs to be a transfer of civil polity and the encouragement of positive-sum social, economic, and political relationships that are characteristic of open access order societies like our own - those societies that are actually able to fully develop themselves using their own talents and resources.


    The Natural State: The Political Economy of Non-Development,
    by Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast.
    .PDF at http://www.international.ucla.edu/article.asp?parentid=22899