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the last 30 years, China moved an estimated 680 million people out of
poverty by giving them access to modern energy, mostly powered by coal.
Yes, this has resulted in terrible air pollution and a huge increase in
greenhouse gas emissions. But it is a trade-off many developing
countries would gratefully choose
There's a lot of
hand-wringing about our warming planet, but billions of people face a
more immediate problem: They are desperately poor, and many cook and
heat their homes using open fires or leaky stoves that burn dirty fuels
like wood, dung, crop waste and coal. About 3.5 million of them die
prematurely each year as a result of breathing the polluted air inside
their homes — about 200,000 more than the number who die prematurely
each year from breathing polluted air outside, according to a study by
the World Health Organisation.
There's no question that burning
fossil fuels is leading to a warmer climate and that addressing this
problem is important. But doing so is a question of timing and priority.
For many parts of the world, fossil fuels are still vital and will be
for the next few decades, because they are the only means to lift people
out of the smoke and darkness of energy poverty.
More than 1.2
billion people around the world have no access to electricity, according
to the International Energy Agency's World Energy Outlook for 2012.
Most of them live in sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia. That is nearly four
times the number of people who live in the United States.
sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, excluding South Africa, the entire
electricity-generating capacity available is only 28 gigawatts —
equivalent to Arizona's — for 860 million people. About 6.5 million
people live in Arizona.
Even more people — an estimated 3 billion
— still cook and heat their homes using open fires and leaky stoves,
according to the energy agency. More efficient stoves could help. And
solar panels could provide LED lights and power to charge cellphones.
But let's face it. What those living in energy poverty need are
reliable, low-cost fossil fuels, at least until we can make a global
transition to a greener energy future. This is not just about powering
stoves and refrigerators to improve billions of lives but about powering
agriculture and industry that will improve lives. Over the last 30
years, China moved an estimated 680 million people out of poverty by
giving them access to modern energy, mostly powered by coal. Yes, this
has resulted in terrible air pollution and a huge increase in greenhouse
gas emissions. But it is a trade-off many developing countries would
As China becomes wealthier, it will most
likely begin to cut its air pollution problem through regulation, just
as the rich world did in the 20th century. But, admittedly, cutting
carbon-dioxide emissions will be much harder because these emissions are
a byproduct of the cheap energy that makes the world go around.
81 per cent of the planet's energy needs are met by fossil fuels, and
according to the International Energy Agency, that percentage will be
almost as high in 2035 under current policies, when consumption will be
much greater. The unfortunate fact is that many people feel
uncomfortable facing up to the undeniable need for more cheap and
reliable power in the developing world.
The Obama administration
announced recently, for instance, that it would no longer contribute to
the construction of coal-fired power plants financed by the World Bank
and other international development banks. This should not have been a
surprise. 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.
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."
developed world needs a smarter approach toward cleaner fuels. The
United States has been showing the way. Hydraulic fracturing has
produced an abundance of inexpensive natural gas, leading to a shift
away from coal in electricity production. Because burning natural gas
emits half the carbon dioxide of coal, this technology has helped the
United States reduce carbon dioxide emissions to the lowest level since
the mid-1990s, even as emissions rise globally. We need to export this
technology and help other nations exploit it. At the same time, wealthy
Western nations must step up investments into r search and development
in green energy technologies to ensure that cleaner energy eventually
becomes so cheap that everyone will want it. But until then they should
not stand in the way of poorer nations as they turn to coal and other
fossil fuels. This approach will get our priorities right. And perhaps
then, people will be able to cook in their own homes without slowly