Guest post by Vijay Jayaraj
Countries across the globe are at a crossroads. They must choose between competing energy sources.
On the one hand, there are fossil fuels, the long-proven, relatively simple technologies of which provide abundant, affordable, reliable, instant-on-demand conventional energy. Indeed, they provide over 80 percent of all energy used in the world today.
On the other hand, there are “renewable energy sources.” Don’t think of the old reliable ones like hydro, wood, and dung, but of what Bjørn Lomborg, in his new book False Alarm, calls “new renewables,” mainly wind turbines and solar panels. Unlike fossil fuels, wind and solar are diffuse, providing less energy per area of land, and intermittent. Consequently, they are less abundant, more expensive, unreliable, and—when the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine—often completely unavailable.
Countries don’t face this decision by choice.
The United Nations’ (UN) collective decision, under the Framework Convention on Climate Change, to wage war on fossil fuels required a draconian energy policy. First it tried the Kyoto Protocol—under which almost no nation lived up to its commitments. Ironically, the United States, which never ratified it, had the world’s best record at reducing greenhouse gas emissions during the period Kyoto covered.
With the Kyoto Protocol’s expiration in 2012, the UN needed a replacement. It came up with the Paris Agreement in 2015. Over 190 nations had signed on by early 2016, and by 2019 nearly every nation had ratified and submitted its plans for greenhouse gas reductions.
But before then, the Paris Agreement lost its biggest cash cow. United States President Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that his nation would withdraw from the agreement. By the terms of the Agreement, the withdrawal becomes effective November 4, 2020—a day after America’s next Presidential election, but two-and-a-half months before the winner is inaugurated.
The key element of the Agreement is for member states to decrease their greenhouse gas emissions, which come mainly from fossil fuel use. Countries submitted individual deadlines to the Agreement and were expected to achieve those goals.
But almost all major European member states have failed to meet their emission reduction deadlines, and they remain unaccountable. Even economic powerhouses like Germany and France, both of which championed the treaty, continue to lag behind their emission reduction targets.
Moreover, advanced member states such as Japan and Australia have shown no restraints towards fossil fuels. The US has been on a fossil-fuel spree, emerging with a superior energy sector that is less dependent on oil from the Middle East.
Developing countries are in a difficult position economically. Some of their GDPs are much smaller than the European giants, all have GDP per capita below the developed countries, and poverty in them is widespread and often severe.
Developing countries understandably are reluctant to suppress their own growth by depending on expensive, intermittent, unreliable wind and solar when developed nations don’t. Some of the developing nations have expressed this through their domestic policy decisions.
The two largest developing nations, India and China, with a combined 2.8 billion people, together are the highest users of coal in the world. They have defied international pressure to reduce fossil fuel consumption. Economists say that this continued reliance on fossil fuels and the “economic growth from expanded use of fossil fuels will add thousands of dollars of annual income to the poor in India.” Ditto in China.
Quite simply, fossil fuels lifted the West out of poverty over the last 170 years. Developing countries understandably see no reason why they shouldn’t have the same benefit. Freeing up the billions of dollars these developing countries currently spend on renewable technology would speed their conquest of poverty.
Developed countries that provide them this fund are not immune from “energy poverty” themselves. Energy poverty (also called “fuel poverty” and defined in the United Kingdom as when a household must spend over 10 percent of its income solely on home heating—jeopardizing its ability to provide adequate food and other necessities) exists even in the UK and US, where the vulnerable population experience serious morbidity and mortality from their inability to pay energy bills.
In 2018, 2.40 million households in England were classified as fuel poor. Hundreds die each year in the English winter due to their inability to pay heating bills.
Reports indicate that energy poverty is a very real problem in the US, too. In 2015, “17 million households received an energy disconnect/delivery stop notice and 25 million households had to forgo food and medicine to pay energy bills.”
Developed countries must not fall into an imaginary abyss where they aggravate this widespread energy poverty. They, like the developing countries, must stop their investments in renewables and instead focus on making affordable energy.
Developing countries can begin by following the US example, pulling out of the Paris Agreement, which not only mandates reduced greenhouse gas emissions, but also forces them to spent billions for renewable installations that cannot provide the abundant, affordable, reliable energy indispensable to overcoming poverty.
Vijay Jayaraj (M.Sc., Environmental Science, University of East Anglia, England), is a Research Contributor for the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation.