In this post, Jamais Cascio argues (among other things) that Kyoto will be a boon to African countries, because of the treaty’s Clean Development Mechanism, which, as explained well here, allows companies and countries to build or fund clean energy projects in developing countries in exchange for carbon-emissions credits that can be traded on the open market. He points to this story, which describes several possible projects in South Africa that stand to benefit.

But South Africa is somewhat anomalous in Africa, in terms of stability and economic development. What of poorer, less stable African countries?

An AFP article makes the case (or rather, quotes analysts making the case) that they will not benefit. There are two main arguments. Here’s the first:

…CDM contributions must be kept separate from official development aid, which adds a layer of risk to investment in what are considered the world’s least stable countries, said [Jean Philippe Thomas of the Senegal-based Environmental Development Action in the Third World].

"Nobody is going to risk major sums and invest in expensive new technologies for post-war countries just for the sake of a couple of CO2 credits," he said. "It’s easier and cheaper just to buy them."

Instead, said Thomas, the continent as a whole would be better served by investments in long-term urban and transport planning that would ensure sustainable development, minimize pollution and bypass the emissions problems that are plaguing the industrialized world.

"There is a chance in Africa to do things better, to build cities better and minimize their impacts on the planet, pollution included," he said.

"But even in trying to help the continent (with official development aid) we are making the same mistakes that will only contribute to climate change, looking for quick short-term solutions like cleaner-burning fossil fuels instead of long-term solutions like mass transit."

Seems to me there’s some truth to this, but only some. First of all, it’s not like the choice is between the kind of long-term infrastructure investment Thomas describes and the clean technology investment Kyoto rewards. By aligning it with their self-interest, Kyoto is presumably going to prompt countries and companies to make investments they wouldn’t have otherwise made. Something is better than nothing.

Secondly, it’s not clear that the contrast Thomas draws — infrastructure investment vs. "expensive new technologies for post-war countries" — is fair. Admittedly, I know very little about what specific technologies qualify for CDM credits, but it seems at least likely that some of them will be very helpful for poor communities hoping to leapfrog past the fuel sources and technologies that so polluted the West. Alternative energies like hydropower and solar power, and even fossil-fuel amelioration technologies like clean coal burning, don’t strike me as "quick short-term solutions." They are crucial for long-term sustainable development.

Thomas’ point that Western nation’s should invest much more in developing countries’ urban and transit infrastructure is, of course, valid. I’m just not sure Kyoto is so unrelated to that project.

Thomas’ second argument makes less sense to me:

"You cannot cut emissions in a country that does not have them," he said, noting that of the thousands of tonnes of pollution produced globally each year, Africa, despite being a continent of 800 million people, is responsible for two to three percent.

"The least developed countries are not going to benefit from the technology because their priorities are not mitigation but adaptation to the effects of climate change."

While it’s true that global warming is likely to disproportionately affect the world’s poorest people and nations, surely it’s not the case that their sole priority is bracing for those effects. Surely sustainable development is at least an equal priority — indeed, sustainable development can be seen as one way of preparing to adapt to climate change. Thomas seems to be focusing on the kind of technology that reduces emissions of fossil fuel-burning plants — which, of course, Africa has a proportionately small number of — rather than technologies like solar and hydropower that generate the energy Africa very much needs.

Anyway, the question of how Kyoto will affect developing countries is both important and complex. We’ll see how it plays out. Readers: any thoughts?