“Let them eat coal”: Why cheap, dirty fuels aren’t a meal ticket for developing countries
Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish provocateur who loves to pick fights with the climate movement, argues in the New York Times this week that what people in developing nations — or as he called them, “the poor” — really want is cheap, dirty, fossil fuels to help them reach prosperity. Poor folks, he says, could get rich off of coal if the West would just get out the way. It’s part of an ongoing conversation that has stymied international climate talks, about how wealthy countries have gotten rich on fossil fuels, and now want poor countries to help clean up the mess.
Lomborg uses South Africa as his test:
The last time the World Bank agreed to help finance construction of a coal-fired power plant, in South Africa in 2010, the United States abstained from a vote approving the deal. The Obama administration expressed concerns that the project would “produce significant greenhouse gas emissions.” But as South Africa’s finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, explained at the time in The Washington Post, “To sustain the growth rates we need to create jobs, we have no choice but to build new generating capacity — relying on what, for now, remains our most abundant and affordable energy source: coal.”
We’ll put aside the fact that the last time, or rather the first time the Dutch came up with a prosperity scheme for Africa it involved a vicious slave trade that put the continent on a path to poverty it’s yet to fully recover from. Africans, not Lomborg, are the people to determine what Africans need. And while Gordhan, speaking for finance, may have said his country needed coal in 2010, the following year during the COP 17 climate negotiations in Durban, faith leaders came together declaring that [PDF] “South Africa must stand with Africa — not big polluters.”
For their COP 17 statement they wrote:
For South Africa, true leadership on climate change and sustainability must mean abandoning nuclear energy and its continued use of coal, its insistence on claiming further carbon space, and its refusal to change unless it is paid to do so by the international community. It must turn away from supply and pricing models that privilege multinational corporations, must improve on its current paltry ambition of at most 20% renewable energy by 2030, and commit resources into developing renewable energy and promoting energy efficiency that will create new employment and new opportunities for all in Southern Africa.
They circulated a petition at the Durban conference calling for the same. Among the signers: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Pravin Gordhan.
In Gordhan’s 2013 budget speech, he didn’t mention coal once. But he did say:
To ensure that South Africa produces fuel that is more environmentally friendly, support mechanisms for both biofuel production and the upgrade of oil refineries to cleaner fuel standards will be introduced.
In addition, government continues to direct spending towards environmental programmes, such as installing solar water geysers, procuring renewable energy, low carbon public transport, cleaning up derelict mines, addressing acid mine drainage, supporting our national parks, and in particular, to saving our rhino population, who remain under threat.
We are also encouraging the private sector and smaller public entities to be creative and develop low-carbon projects through the Green Fund.
Perhaps knowing that South Africa wasn’t his best black friend on this issue, Lomborg included China as another example, noting how it moved almost 680 million people out of poverty by giving them access to coal-powered energy. “Yes, this has resulted in terrible air pollution and a huge increase in greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote Lomborg. “But it is a trade-off many developing countries would gratefully choose.”
Maybe they’d choose it, but “gratefully”? If they aren’t offered much other choice? I grew up with a lot of people who came up out of poverty by selling drugs. This led to a huge increase in incarcerations and poor health outcomes throughout the rest of their communities — not to mention shaving years off their own lives due to the threat of jail or getting killed. Yes, it’s a tradeoff, but they took it because they weren’t offered much else in terms of jobs and economic opportunities.
The tired “let them eat coal” argument that you should get rich or die from pollution trying is obsolete and borderline racist given you rarely hear it made for Europeans. But Africans have determined that this is not an either-or thing. A conference held in October by the Climate for Development in Africa (ClimDev Africa Programme) concluded with a summary and recommendations document [PDF] that said, “There is no question of a choice between economic growth and environmental protection. The green economy is about achieving green growth while at the same time protecting our environment.” They recommended that, “Planners of development programmes and projects should include the valuation of Africa’s ecosystems as part of their economic evaluations.”
In other words, there is no trade-off. What Africans have been demanding is funding from the already-rich-from-coal countries for their own climate change adaptation, mitigation, and clean technology systems. Their economies have not been able to keep up with the hyper-industrialized western nations so they can’t afford this on their own. How they got that they way had a lot to do with those Dutch slave traders.
Today, Lomborg’s home country is one of the world leaders in renewable energy. I can imagine one of the African farmers who actually have to live with the worst of climate change’s impacts saying to him, “If this coal is so cheap and good, then why don’t you eat it?”