By Joel Kotkin & Hugo Kruger
The Covid-19 pandemic has been particularly cruel to the developing world, with Africa, Latin America, and South Asia all epicenters of high fatalities. But something worse may be on the way – this time not from viruses but good intentions, bolstered by often-unrealistic climate projections, which threaten to keep these countries in poverty for the foreseeable future.
Economically strong countries – China, above all – account for most of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions. But increasingly, western powers, along with the World Bank, investment banks, development funds, and the huge nonprofit sector, are moving to block fossil-fuel projects that could lift large parts of the world out of energy poverty. Emissions and economic progress remain closely linked; in the last two decades, CO2 concentrations have been falling in all wealthy nations, though these reductions were offset by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to a resurgent China.
The still-developing countries’ misfortune has been to get to the economic table when the climate change movement has gained unprecedented power in the West, placing new roadblocks in their following the East Asian path of manufacturing-led growth. At the same time, concerns over loss of industrial and other fossil-fuel-related jobs have led to growing calls from the likes of Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer and the European Commission to tax the carbon content of imports, threatening the anti-poverty strategies of India and other poorer countries while also dimming the prospects of struggling middleweights like Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine.
These countries are not likely to agree with U.S. climate representative John Kerry’s notion that “no one is being asked for a sacrifice.” It’s all about which populations get hit hardest under green-ification. We can see previews already in places like California and in Germany, where green energy shortfalls produce higher prices, rising energy poverty, blackouts – and a growing dependency on less-green places, like the Intermountain West or Russia, for energy.
Of course, such comparatively rich places are far better equipped to absorb soaring energy bills. If decarbonizing means the end of growth in the West, including restrictions on air travel, what will it mean for countries that are already poor, energy short, and possessing little in the way of savings? The Rockefeller Foundation estimates that more than half of Sub-Saharan Africa still lives in energy poverty, with deforestation making up the majority of its energy-related needs. The practice of indoor cooking on open fire and stoves alone contributes to almost half of all childhood-pneumonia related deaths worldwide.
Africa needs energy: the continent is set to make up almost 40% of the world’s population by the end of this century, and it is urbanizing at a rapid rate. In some senses, Africa’s problem is not its carbon footprint, but lack of one; the continent accounts for only 3% of the world’s carbon emissions. In Africa’s two largest economies, South Africa and Nigeria, the youth unemployment rate pre-Covid-19 approached 50%, five times that of the U.S. and three times that of the EU.
These social ills can be traced in part to lack of reliable energy and water for developmental needs. South Africa has since 2008 experienced an energy shortfall and simultaneously a water crisis. In 2021, Nigeria experienced a total grid collapse, and blackouts in the country are routine. Comparable situations exist in Iran, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
There are also massive political risks. Africa’s young population is frustrated and unemployed, and riots over a rise in energy prices have occurred in South Africa, Nigeria, and Senegal. Comparable events occurred in 2019 in Iran, when protestors demonstrated against increasing fuel prices, as well as in Lebanon and Ecuador in 2021 The pandemic has made these places even more unstable, but long-term energy deficits could make such disorder commonplace.
In many ways, coal would be the most logical way to power developing countries. Coal, after all, continues to power China’s rise, as the country reconsiders the political and economic implications of rapid reductions in fossil fuels. India is also pushing ahead with new coal power stations. Indeed, despite the anger by green groups and their corporate allies, African countries still plan to build more coal power stations as their populations grow. Their unrealistic public commitments to reduce their carbon emissions by 32% by 2030 may never be achieved.
Two technologies that produce lower emissions but still provide reliable power – natural gas and nuclear – seem the best way forward for developing countries. Large natural gas deposits have been discovered in South Africa’s Karoo region, and in Angola, Namibia, and Mozambique. During the 2021 African Energy Week, many African leaders focused on gas as the most sustainable way in the short run to eliminate energy poverty.
Nuclear power has the potential to decarbonize much of the Third World, but it requires large investments. Many developing countries, unfortunately, do not have the credit ratings for long-term low interest rates necessary to finance them. Despite this shortcoming, 10 out of the 30 countries currently considering nuclear power are in Africa. Meantime, Pakistan, Argentina, Mexico, India, and South Africa have been operating with nuclear power for over two decades. Cape Town in 1985 could already boast to be a carbon-free energy city, with the construction of its Koeberg Power Station.
Sadly, the combination of virtue-signaling companies and directives shaped by green activists in rich countries – often based on wildly exaggerated projections, notes former Barack Obama advisor Steve Koonin – make such a gradual, technically feasible transition all but impossible. Instead, it is becoming increasingly unlikely that developing countries will be able to tap even their own gas. Plans to build nuclear power could suffer a similar snuffing out by the well-financed green and renewable lobbies.
The class implications, both in the West and more so in the developing world, are profoundly disturbing. Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor and advisor to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, proposes that a carbon-offset market be established so that the world economies can be “nudged” toward the stated goal of “net zero.” Carney is well-known for advocating strict controls over economic growth, whatever the impact on those outside his own class. In the Green World Order, even average westerners would, according to one study, return to the status of a medieval serfs, eating less, living in much smaller homes, and reducing long-distance travel to rare occasions.
In the developing world, the implications of energy shortages and price increases mean a reduced prospect for future prosperity. To be sure, solar and other renewables retain considerable potential in developing countries, considering the fall in the cost of solar panels and wind turbines, and the emphasis on hydrogen. One study suggests that Africa currently uses only 0.1% of its wind energy potential, and the African development bank estimates that Africa can become a solar powerhouse. South Africa’s SASOL is planning to pilot a few hydrogen-fuel projects in collaboration with Toyota.
But these developments likely will take too long for African countries and others in the developing world to improve their overall economies. The creation of a stable and affordable grid remains paramount, something difficult to achieve due to the expensive cost of batteries and the intermittent nature of renewables. As developing countries prove unable to competitively expand their industrial and energy economies, we could see their permanent devolution to the status of raw material providers – places where environmental damage can be inflicted without offending the sensibilities of sophisticated western or East Asian urbanites.
The shift to renewables in the West, for example, has increased focus on developing countries as prime sources for critical metals – copper, lithium, and rare-earth minerals, in particular – that could lead to the devastation of much of the remaining natural and agricultural landscape. Just to meet UK electric car targets for 2050, notes a recent letter coauthored by Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Richard Herrington to the Committee on Climate Change, would require just under two times the current annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three-quarters the world’s lithium production, and 12% of one year’s total annual production of mined copper.
Though prodded by an understandable desire to “save” the planet, the green movement – by keeping energy expensive and intermittent – could accelerate the developing world’s rapid descent toward a bleak future as a resource colony for richer countries. Lithium has led to the depletion of water resources in Latin America and the further entrenchment of child labor in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the search for cobalt continues. In an effort to challenge the Chinese monopoly, mining giant Glencore is set to enter the mineral trade, making many Africans fear that a new scramble for their mineral resources is underway. While countries such as the DRC and Zambia have the potential to benefit from the green economy as the demand for copper soars, these debt-ridden nations will have to get their houses in order if they want to become more than just a strip mine of the future.
The western greens, albeit unintentionally, are essentially turning the Third World into the place they send their dirty work. Already, notes environmental author Mike Shellenberger, Africans are stuck with loads of discarded, highly toxic solar panels that expose both the legions of rag-pickers and the land itself to environmental degradation – all in the name of environmentalism.
The developing world deserves better. If the advanced economies wish to impose draconian limitations on themselves, that’s one thing. That battle will divide those societies, and will continue to accelerate class conflicts, as evidenced by the gilets juanes protest in France. But in the developing world, where a majority of the world’s people reside, it could mean a far greater tragedy – permanent consignment to poverty, with consequences that will inevitably be felt, whether in armed conflicts or mass migration, even inside the green cocoon of the West’s ruling classes.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin
Hügo Krüger is a Structural Engineer with working experience in the Nuclear, Concrete and Oil and Gas Industry. He was born in Pretoria South Africa and moved to France in 2015. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Pretoria and a Masters degree in Nuclear Structures from ESTP Paris.