There Are No Development Short-Cuts, But You Can Compress the Costs - the Energy Example
Wednesday, February 10, 2016 at 1:38PM
Thomas P.M. Barnett in Africa, Citation Post, development, energy, environment
BJORN LOMBORG HAS LONG BEEN A FAVORITE OF MINE, POINTING OUT VERY UN-P.C. TRUTHS ABOUT ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AND THE HYPOCRISY OF WELL-MEANING LIBERALS AND CONSERVATIVES ABOUT THE "RIGHT PATH." Lomborg tends to split those differences and does so most contentiously on climate change, arguing that humanity should balance benefits against costs, calm adaptation against frantic action, and measurable progress in the here-and-now against strident urgency for fantastically-ambitious-but-likely-counterproductive achievements in the distant future. In short, he's annoyingly pragmatic in a debate that's grown far too ideological and shrill on both sides. He is a person out of time – like any good strategic thinker.

This is a subject upon which I've long harped as an apostle of the true faith in capitalism: the average person in the Developing South wants all the same things we've long enjoyed in the Developed North, so – duh(!), they're not interested in pathways that continue to delay that glorious achievement, particularly when it comes to foregoing economic advance in the name of keeping their local environments "pristine" to make up for the fact that we in the North totally altered ours when grabbing for all the wealth and comforts we now enjoy. Simply put, they have no desire to pay for our "sins."

Indeed, the most notorious types in the global South who embrace this self-denial "imperative" offered by the North are the very same civilizational fundamentalists whom we now so clearly fear for their tendency to go religiously rogue in championing the mass murder of "infidels" by any means necessary. That nasty crew is more than happy to go back to the 7th-century paradise when men were nasty, brutish, and short, and women and children were just this side of sex slaves and chattel (and no, the historian in me doesn't allow me to add the word "respectively" to the end of that sentence).  If you want to see what truly constitutes preservation of the developmental pristine, spend some time within the Islamic State (Iraq, Syria) or the ranks of Boko Haram (northeast Nigeria) and al-Shabaab (south/central Somalia).  There is nothing noble in their rejection of a consumer society and all the "dangerous" liberties it presents.

What we truly know from history is that people – the world over – become more tolerant, better stewards, and more socially charitable oncetheir incomes rise to the point where they're no longer obsessed with their personal/family's/clan's survival. Just those first couple of steps up Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs and – man(!) – does humanity's innate capacity for empathy surmount darn near all, unleashing the social resilience that has defined our species' mastery of this planet.

It just takes a wee bit of strategic patience on our part (hard for us Northerners so long used to getting every material and emotional need almost instantly met), or an acceptance that economic development, while it can be sped up, isn't subject to short-cuts, much less magical leaps.

Now to Lomborg's recent op-ed on the subject of what we should or should not expect Africans to do to atone for our past mistakes/gluttony/greed for a better life, while they seek the same for themselves (I know, how dare they!):

Africa is the world’s most “renewable” continent when it comes to energy. In the rich world, renewables account for less than a tenth of total energy supplies. The 900 million people of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) get 80% of their energy from renewables ...

Ah, the "noble savage" who can teach all us "lost souls" how to reconnect to nature, except ...

All this is not because Africa is green, but because it is poor. Some 2% of the continent’s energy needs are met by hydro-electricity, and 78% by humanity’s oldest “renewable” fuel: wood. This leads to heavy deforestation and lethal indoor air pollution, which kills 1.3 million people each year.

Nobody wants to hear this, but humanity's journey through phases of economic development has progressively de-carbonized our energy sources, moving us from wood (don't even ask) to coal (high CO2 emissions) to oil (lower) to natural gas (still lower) to (God forbid!) nuclear (very low) and ultimately hydrogen (way low if generated by nuclear power plants).  Thus, to be pristine is to be incredibly dirty – by today's environmental standard.

But let's skip all that, say the visionaries ...

What Africa needs, according to many activists, is to be dotted with solar panels and wind turbines ...

Right on!  Fast-forward to the good parts! Like we finally figured out how to do – emphasis on the word finally:

Europe and North America became rich thanks to cheap, plentiful power. In 1800, 94% of all global energy came from renewables, almost all of it wood and plant material. In 1900, renewables provided 41% of all energy; even at the end of World War II, renewables still provided 30% of global energy. Since 1971, the share of renewables has bottomed out, standing at around 13.5% today. Almost all of this is wood, with just 0.5% from solar and wind.

YaleWeird fact: the most developed countries in the world today tend to be the most environmentally "clean," while the least developed tend to be the most trashed. The big difference: people with money have the option to care.

So what should we reasonably demand of Africa? After all, it's home to droughts and famine that would rival America's Arizona – if the latter wasn't populated with retirees with enough wealth to make both problems go away with the swipe of a card.

... By 2040, in the IEA’s optimistic scenario, solar power in Sub-Saharan Africa will produce 14kWh per person per year, less than what is needed to keep a single two-watt LED permanently lit. The IEA also estimates that renewable power will still cost more, on average, than any other source – oil, gas, nuclear, coal, or hydro, even with a carbon tax ...

Oh my.  Still, wouldn't it be more fair to ask Africans to forego all that dehumanizing consumption for a simpler, more satisfying – and admittedly far shorter – life? Lomborg suggests "no":

Few in the rich world would switch to renewables without heavy subsidies, and certainly no one would cut off their connection to the mostly fossil-fuel-powered grid that provides stable power on cloudy days and at night (another form of subsidy). Yet Western activists seem to believe that the world’s worst-off people should be satisfied with inadequate and irregular electricity supplies.

I believe we call that "living off the grid," and doesn't that make you a better and happier person?

In its recent Africa Energy Outlook, the IEA estimates that Africa’s energy consumption will increase by 80% by 2040; but, with the continent’s population almost doubling, less energy per person will be available...

Providing more – and more reliable – power to almost two billion people will increase GDP by 30% in 2040. Each person on the continent will be almost $1,000 better off every year.

Hmm.  That sounds like they'll just be lost to the "rat race" of modern consumerism (he sanctimoniously intoned, pecking away at his $1,000 laptop in his toasty-warm Madison Wisconsin home mid-winter).

But what about the costs of his selfish hedonism?

In other words, the total costs of the “African Century,” including climate- and health-related costs, would amount to $170 billion. The total benefits, at $8.4 trillion, would be almost 50 times higher.

The same general argument probably holds for India and other developing countries . . .

Annoying, isn't he?

But let's be clear about his argument, brushing aside the usual straw-man criticism that he cares not for the environment:

One day, innovation could drive down the price of future green energy to the point that it lifts people out of poverty more effectively than fossil fuels do. Globally, we should invest much more in such innovation. (emphasis mine) But global warming will not be fixed by hypocritically closing a path out of poverty to the world’s poor.

Just think about how much we in the North now naturally obsess over our own perceived lack of resilience or brittleness in the face of today's global complexity, uncertainty, and challenges. And then imagine doing that on a dirt floor in a one-room hut in rural southern Ethiopia while you breath in the fumes from your dung-fueled cookstove.

Which sounds easier to you?

We all want to manage this world with greater care, more foresight, and kind accommodation of each another's basic and higher needs. And we will get there, increasing our collective resilience as we go. We just won't take any shortcuts, nor leave anybody behind - much less ask them to do so to make up for our past transgressions.

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