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There really is a trade-off: denying aid for fossil fuels hurts the poor

My column in The Times is on the undeniable truth that western countries are preventing Africans getting access to the cheapest power, which is fossil-fuelled.

In what is probably the silliest comment on climate since a Ukip councillor blamed floods on gay marriage, a green journalist opined of the refugees dying in the Mediterranean: “This is what climate crisis looks like . . . We know there is evidence that the violence triggered by the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 were in part fuelled by protests over soaring food prices.”

The soaring prices were actually exacerbated (as the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN confirmed) by the diversion of much of the world’s farmland into making motor fuel, in the form of ethanol and biodiesel, for the rich to salve their green consciences. Climate policies were probably a greater contributor to the Arab Spring than climate change itself.

Many refugees are fleeing Islamist persecution in Libya and the Sahel but as Dr Kandeh Yumkella, UN under-secretary-general, told the BBC, the “long-term push factors” that are driving people to make the “miserable journey” include the lack of energy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Without abundant fuel and power, prosperity is impossible: workers cannot amplify their productivity, doctors cannot preserve vaccines, students cannot learn after dark, goods cannot get to market. Nearly 700 million Africans rely mainly on wood or dung to cook and heat with, and 600 million have no access to electric light. Britain with 60 million people has nearly as much electricity-generating capacity as the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, minus South Africa, with 800 million.

As the International Energy Agency recently put it in a recent report, “increasing access to modern forms of energy is crucial to unlocking faster economic and social development in sub-Saharan Africa”. Africa is awash with fossil fuels — but not the capital to build plants to turn them into electricity.

Just to get sub-Saharan electricity consumption up to the levels of South Africa or Bulgaria would mean adding about 1,000 gigawatts of capacity, the installation of which would cost at least £1 trillion. Yet the greens want Africans to hold back on the cheapest form of power: fossil fuels. In 2013 Ed Davey, the energy secretary, announced that British taxpayers will no longer fund coal-fired power stations in developing countries, and that he would put pressure on development banks to ensure that their funding policies rule out coal. (I declare a commercial interest in coal in Northumberland.)

In the same year the US passed a bill prohibiting the Overseas Private Investment Corporation — a federal agency responsible for underwriting American companies that invest in developing countries — from investing in energy projects that involve fossil fuels.

There is a growing backlash against this policy. The Republicans want to reverse it. Yvo de Boer, head of the Global Green Growth Institute, says: “You really have to be able to offer these countries an economically viable alternative, before you begin to rule out coal.” And Donald Kaberuka, president of the African Development Bank, says it is hypocritical for western governments, made rich by fossil fuels, “to say to African countries, ‘You cannot develop dams, you cannot develop coal, just rely on these very expensive renewables’. African countries will not listen.”

The Center for Global Development calculates that $10 billion invested in renewable energy technology in sub-Saharan Africa could give 20-27 million people access to basic electricity, whereas the same sum spent on gas-fired generation would supply 90 million.

Meanwhile, China’s new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, is stepping in as the Americans and Europeans step back. Its willingness to fund coal projects is one of the reasons other Asian countries are rushing to join the project, to the irritation of Washington. The Australian government is joining forces with Japan to push for the construction of “clean coal” plants in the developing world — power stations that burn coal more efficiently.

Some greens argue that rural parts of Africa may be able to eschew giant power grids and leapfrog into off-grid solar-powered electricity, a bit like Kenya has with mobile banking. But that costs more and it won’t power factories. The continent needs both, and those who advocate no support for coal are effectively saying that the adoption of renewable energy is more important than alleviating African poverty.

The evidence suggests that investing in affordable energy in Africa will not only achieve great good in itself but will equip Africans better to cope with dangerous climate change if it happens: weather-related mortality correlates with poverty. A survey of more than two million Africans finds that climate change comes dead last of 16 concerns they were asked about.

So far, the African climate has not changed significantly, anyway: dangerous weather is no more frequent and a recent analysis by Euan Mearns found that temperatures in southern Africa, outside cities, are no higher than in the 1930s. (He also found evidence of “shocking, mass manipulation of temperature records”, a charge that is now to be investigated on a global level by a panel chaired by Professor Terence Kealey.)

Meanwhile, satellite images show a spectacular and beneficial greening all across the Sahel, caused partly by better land management and partly by higher carbon dioxide levels in the air, which encourage plant growth. A German study projects that this may continue for most of the current century.

The economist Bjørn Lomborg has been making the case that getting energy and clean water to Africans is a higher moral priority than pursuing renewable energy. He still thinks climate change is a danger, but he thinks developing new energy technologies will get far better results than rolling out expensive and land-hungry renewables today.

For this heresy against the renewable energy boondoggle, he is being attacked by the green Taliban, which is campaigning to prevent him joining the University of Western Australia. As the blogger Andrew Montford put it: “Bjørn Lomborg argues that we should focus our spending on immediate problems, such as ensuring Africans have access to clean water. For this he is vilified, attacked and has his livelihood threatened. His critics wish to see money spent on climate change mitigation measures instead. A tragedy for the Africans.”

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times