Published: 14:51, August 24, 2022 | Updated: 14:54, August 24, 2022
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Rich nations cheat the poor of fossil fuels
By Bjorn Lomborg


The rich world's fossil fuel hypocrisy is on full display in its response to the global energy crisis following the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. While the wealthy G7 countries ask the world's poor to use only renewables because of climate concerns, European countries and the United States are begging Arab countries to raise oil production, with Germany reopening coal power plants and Spain and Italy prodding African countries to increase gas production. In fact, so many European countries have asked Botswana to mine more coal that the country will have to triple its exports.

Now consider this: A single person in the rich world uses more fossil fuel energy than all the energy available to 23 poor Africans. The rich world became wealthy by massively exploiting fossil fuels, which today provides more than three-quarters of its energy. Sunlight and wind deliver less than 3 percent of the rich world's energy.

Yet the rich are choking off funding for new fossil fuels to the developing world. Most of the world's poorest 4 billion people have no meaningful access to energy, so the rich blithely tell them to "leapfrog" from no energy to a "green nirvana" of solar panels and wind turbines.

This promised nirvana is a sham consisting of wishful thinking and green marketing. The world's rich will never accept off-grid, renewable energy themselves-and nor should the world's poor.

Consider the experience of Dharnai, a village in Jehanabad district of Bihar, which Greenpeace tried to turn into India's first solar-powered community in 2014. Greenpeace received widespread global media attention when it declared that Dharnai will refuse "to give in to the trap of the fossil fuel industry". But the day the solar electricity was turned on, the batteries were drained within hours. A boy remembers wanting to do his homework, but there wasn't enough power to light one bulb in his home.

Villagers were prohibited from using refrigerators or TVs because they would exhaust the system. They couldn't use electric stoves either, and had to continue burning wood and dung, which create terrible air pollution. Across the developing world, millions die from indoor pollution that the World Health Organization says is equivalent to each person smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

Greenpeace invited Bihar province's chief minister to inspect and admire its work. But on arriving at the village, he was confronted by a crowd waving signs demanding "real electricity" (the kind you can use to run a refrigerator or a stove and your children can use to light lamps to do their homework) and not "fake electricity" (meaning solar energy that could do none of these things).

When Dharnai was finally connected to the state power grid, an increasing number of villagers gave up their solar connections. A study found a big reason for that was that the overwhelmingly coal-powered grid electricity was three times cheaper than the solar energy. What's more, it could actually power home appliances and devices like stoves and TVs. Today, the disused solar power system is covered in thick dust, and the project site has become a cattle shed.

To be sure, solar energy can charge a cell phone and light a bulb, which can be useful-but it is often expensive. A new study on solar lamps in India's most populous province shows that even with hefty subsidies, solar lamps are worth much less than their cost for most people. In rich countries such as Germany and Spain, most solar and wind power plants would never have been installed if not for subsidies.

Sunshine and wind are incapable of generating the electricity needed for industrialization, powering water pumps, tractors and machines, which are needed to lift people out of poverty. As rich countries, too, are discovering now, solar and wind energy remains fundamentally unreliable. No sun or wind means no power. Battery technology offers no answers. Globally, there are only enough batteries to power global average electricity consumption for 1 minute and 15 seconds.

Even by 2030, with a projected rapid battery scale-up, they would last less than 12 minutes. For context, every German winter, when solar is at its minimum, there is near-zero wind energy available for at least five days, or more than 7,000 minutes.

This is why the rich world is on track to continue relying mostly on fossil fuels for decades. The International Energy Agency estimates that even if all current climate promises are delivered, fossil fuels will continue to generate two-thirds of the rich world's energy in 2050. The developing world sees the hypocrisy, as elegantly formulated by Nigeria's vice-president, Yemi Osinbajo: "No one in the world has been able to industrialize using renewable energy" and yet Africa has "been asked to industrialize using renewable energy when everybody else in the world knows that we need gas-powered industries for business".

Instead of immorally blocking the path for other countries to develop, rich countries need to invest massively in the innovation needed to ensure that green energy costs drop below that of fossil fuels. This way, everyone in the world will be able to afford to switch to renewable alternatives. Insisting that the world's poor live without fossil fuels is virtue signaling that plays with other people's lives.

The author is president of the Copenhagen Consensus. His latest book is False Alarm: How Climate Change Panic Costs Us Trillions, Hurts the Poor, and Fails to Fix the Planet.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.