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Rich Nations To Poor: Fossil Fuels For Me But Not For Thee

african poor

The rich world’s fossil fuel hypocrisy is on full display in its response to the global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While the wealthy G7 countries admonish the world’s poor to use only renewables because of climate concerns, Europe and the United States are going begging to Arab nations to expand oil production, Germany is reopening coal power plants and Spain and Italy are ramping up African gas production. [bold, links added]

So many European countries have asked Botswana to mine more coal it will have to triple its exports.

A single person in the rich world uses more fossil fuel energy than all the energy available to 23 poor Africans.

The rich world became wealthy by massively exploiting fossil fuels, which today provide more than three-quarters of its energy. Solar and wind deliver less than three percent.

Yet the rich are choking off funding for any new fossil fuels in the developing world.

Most of the world’s poorest four billion people have no meaningful energy access so the rich blithely tell them to “leapfrog” from no energy to a green nirvana of solar panels and wind turbines.

This promised nirvana is a sham consisting of wishful thinking and green marketing. The world’s rich would never accept off-grid, renewable energy themselves — and neither should the world’s poor.

Consider the experience of Dharnai, a village Greenpeace tried to turn into India’s first solar-powered community in 2014. 

Greenpeace received glowing, global media attention when it declared that Dharnai would refuse “to give into the trap of the fossil fuel industry.”

But the day the solar electricity was turned on the batteries were drained within hours. A boy remembers wanting to do his homework but there wasn’t enough power for his family’s one lamp.

Villagers were prohibited from using fridges or TVs because they would exhaust the system. They couldn’t use electric cookstoves so had to continue burning wood and dung, which create terrible air pollution.

Across the developing world, millions die from indoor pollution that the World Health Organization says is equivalent to each person smoking two packs of cigarettes every day.

Greenpeace invited the state’s chief minister to admire its handiwork. He was met by a crowd waving signs demanding “real electricity” (the kind you can use to run a refrigerator or stove and that your children can use to do their homework) and not “fake electricity” (meaning solar energy that could do none of these things).

When Dharnai was finally connected to the power grid, more and more people dropped their solar connections.

An academic study found a big reason was that the overwhelmingly coal-powered grid electricity was three times cheaper than solar energy.

What’s more, it could actually power appliances people wanted, like TVs and stoves. Today the disused solar power system is covered in thick dust and the project site is a cattle shed.

To be sure, solar energy can charge a cell phone and run a light, which can be useful — but it is often expensive.

new study on solar lamps in India’s most populous state shows that, even with hefty subsidies, for most people, solar lamps are worth much less than they cost.

In rich countries like Germany and Spain, most solar and wind would never have been installed if not for subsidies.

Solar and wind are incapable of delivering the power needed for industrialization, powering water pumps, tractors, and machines — all the ingredients needed to lift people out of poverty.

As rich countries are now also discovering, solar and wind energy remain fundamentally unreliable.

No sun or wind means no power. Battery technology offers no answers: today there are only enough batteries to power global average electricity consumption for one minute and 15 seconds.

Even by 2030, with a projected rapid battery scale-up, they would last less than 12 minutes.

For context, every German winter, when solar is at its minimum, there is near-zero wind energy available for at least five days — more than 7,000 minutes.

This is why the rich world is on track to continue to rely mostly on fossil fuels for decades.

The International Energy Agency estimates that in 2050, even if all current climate promises are delivered, fossil fuels will still provide two-thirds of the rich world’s energy.

The developing world sees the hypocrisy.

As Nigeria’s Vice-president Yemi Osinbajo has said: “No one in the world has been able to industrialize using renewable energy” and yet Africa has “been asked to industrialize using renewable energy when everybody else in the world knows that we need gas-powered industries for business.

Instead of immorally blocking the path for other countries to develop, rich countries need to invest massively in the innovation needed to ensure that green energy costs drop below those of fossil fuels.

This way, everyone in the world will be able to afford to switch to renewable alternatives.

Insisting that the world’s poor live without fossil fuels is virtue-signaling that plays with other people’s lives.


Bjorn Lomborg is president of the Copenhagen Consensus and visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.”

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