Calls for massive reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions ignore the impacts on the poor.
Guest essay by Bob Lyman
People who believe in the theory of catastrophic human-induced global warming claim that they want to “save the planet” and that this is the moral thing to do. They insist, however, that saving the planet requires stringent reductions in people’s use of fossil fuel energy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They never talk about what that means to the poor. I think that, before people decide on the ethics of the debate, they need to consider what the impact would be of sharply reducing energy consumption on the wellbeing of world’s population, and especially on the poor.
In 2014, the International Energy Agency (IEA) issued a Special Report entitled “Modern Energy for All”. In it, the IEA stated that modern energy services are:
…crucial to human wellbeing” and to a country’s economic development.
Access to modern energy is essential for the provision of clean water, sanitation and healthcare and for the provision of reliable and efficient lighting heating, cooking, mechanical power, transport and telecommunications services.”
Today billions of people lack access to the most basic energy services. Nearly 1.3 billion people are without access to electricity and 2.7 billion people rely on traditional use of biomass (wood, charcoal and animal dung) for cooking, which causes harmful indoor air pollution.
Pause to think about that for a few minutes. Hundreds of millions of people are without the modern energy services that were available to our ancestors who lived in the nineteenth century. They get up with the dawn and go to bed close to nightfall because they have no electrical lighting. They have to go a river or well (if they are lucky) for water to drink or wash in. They have no way to power an appliance, including a refrigerator, so all food has to be eaten quickly or it may go bad. They have to walk long distances everyday to search for firewood or dried animal dung. There is no light to extend the day to provide time for reading or entertainment. They have no telephones. They have no way to pump water for irrigating crops. They have no motorized transportation, so they cannot go very far. Almost all their time is spent simply doing the simple tasks that in Canada and other advanced countries are done by machines. Worse, every day they breathe in the fumes from the dirty cooking fires, developing lung disorders. In fact, according to the IEA, every year 4.3 million premature deaths can be attributed to household air pollution resulting from the use of traditional biomass fuels for cooking.
The international community has long been aware of the close correlation between income levels and access to modern energy; not surprisingly, countries with a large proportion of the population living on an income of $2 per day tend to have low electrification rates and few motorized vehicles. The problem is spread throughout the developing world, but it is particularly severe in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia, which together account for 95% of people in abject energy poverty.
The latent demand for electricity is immense. An estimated 400 million people in India still lack access to electricity. A recent study looked at the expansion of electricity that would be needed on an economy-wide basis in sub-Saharan Africa to comprehensively address energy access. To reach moderate access, where electricity generation capacity is around 200-400 megawatts (MW) per million people, the region would need a total of 374 MW of installed capacity. That’s about twelve times the level of capacity in the region today. All energy sources would be needed to help provide that much capacity.
This is where aspiration runs into reality. In desperately poor countries, they do not have the luxury to spend millions of dollars on energy. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar energy can sometimes be useful where there is no electricity transmission system to take centrally-generated power to rural areas, but it is expensive and often requires technology to install and operate. Further, wind and solar are “intermittent” sources, meaning that they only produce energy when the wind blows or the sun shines respectively. Electrical energy is expensive to store and this can only be done in small amounts.
For reliable electrical energy supply for any possibility of industrial development and for transportation, developing countries need large scale power generation based on low cost, generally available fuels. In India, and in many parts of Africa, this means coal.
Coal reserves are available in almost every country worldwide, with recoverable reserves in around 70 countries. In fact, coal is the backbone of modern electricity in most parts of the world. It now provides about 30% of the primary energy and 41% of global electricity generation. It is plentiful and relatively cheap. Over the decade from 2000 to 2010, China showed the world how massive expansion of coal-fired electricity generation could modernize its economy and bring electrification to almost all parts of the country. As a result, hundreds of millions of Chinese have lifted themselves out of energy and economic poverty and dramatically improved both their income and quality of life.
Yet, coal is the most carbon-intensive of fossil fuels. It is the fuel source most despised by those who want to drastically reduce emissions. The Obama Administration in the United States has, as part of its climate change agenda, pressured the World Bank to stop lending to coal-fired electricity projects and the World Bank has complied. The U.S. Administration has also withdrawn funding from the Export-Import Bank for such projects. Fortunately for the developing countries, a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has been established with major funding from China, which will include funding of new coal projects.
Those pursuing the climate change political agenda are prepared to condemn the world’s poor living without modern energy to remain in their backward situation. For them, billions of blighted lives are preferable to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
Even in the developed countries, the policies advanced for climate reasons fall heavily on the poor.
Electricity prices continue to surge in Europe where costs are often triple those in the U.S. EU governments have various schemes, taxes, subsidies, and mandates, such as Cap and Trade, feed-in tariffs, and surcharges that make Europeans pay more for power. Perhaps the best (worst?) example is Germany, where nearly 20% of families now live in “fuel poverty,” spending more than 10% of household income on energy. Germany’s energy transition (“Energiewende”) is expected to cost an astounding $735 billion, and many are demanding changes. Overall in Europe, 1.4 million more households are expected to be in fuel poverty by 2020.
In the name of climate change, governments are forcing utilities to sign long-term contracts paying as much as four times the going wholesale electricity rate for renewables. Power markets have become so distorted that wind farms in the UK and in Ontario, for instance, have been paid millions to NOT produce electricity.
Supporters of “green” energy policies keep saying that poverty will be reduced if only efficiency would improve, but that position doesn’t hold up. Energy efficiency in the EU has improved around 20% since 2005. In the UK, for instance, energy efficiency has increased nearly 30% since 2003, yet electricity prices have almost doubled and homes in fuel poverty have nearly quadrupled. Europe’s main fuel poverty problem isn’t a lack of efficiency, it’s soaring prices.
Apart from the higher prices, another meaningful measure of energy poverty in Germany is the number of supply stoppages (“power cuts”) ordered by utility companies. Basic suppliers are entitled to interrupt their electricity or gas deliveries in the event of arrears in payment of more than 100 euros after a warning notice followed by a repeated threat to terminate service. According to a survey of the German Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur), in 2013 warnings of electricity supply termination were issued to 5.7 million private households in Germany. The supply of electricity was actually interrupted to roughly 320,000 households.
There are many different moral standards to which one might refer in defining what is the most “ethical” way for people to act when considering their use of energy and other goods to improve their lives. Those environmentalists who claim that “nature” is more important than humans and that any measure, regardless of how costly, should be taken to reduce the effects of humans on the planet will never be satisfied. In my view, human wellbeing, and especially the plight of the world’s poor, deserves a prominent place in judgments about what is ethical behavior. Sharply reducing fossil fuel use means reducing economic development, condemning poor societies to remain poor, and requiring the poor people of today to sacrifice for the sake of addressing an unproven problem in a distant future — this is truly immoral.
IEA- Modern Energy for All