There was a fascinating New York Times article that lays bare the dilemma we will face as the needs of climate change reforms run square into the notion of developing economies and the inequity in the world.
The question is how will developing nations that will require large amounts of energy to achieve American and European living standards generate that energy in a world where climate change is a threat to the future?
As the Times puts it, “The average citizen of Nepal consumes about 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity in a year. Cambodians make do with 160. Bangladeshis are better off, consuming, on average, 260. Then there is the fridge in your kitchen. A typical 20-cubic-foot refrigerator — Energy Star-certified, to fit our environmentally conscious times — runs through 300 to 600 kilowatt-hours a year.”
Dozens of nations such as Nepal, Cambodia, and Bangladesh “have flocked to join China’s new infrastructure investment bank, a potential rival to the World Bank and other financial institutions backed by the United States.” As the Times explains, “The reason for the defiance is not hard to find: The West’s environmental priorities are blocking their access to energy.”
The problem is development and inequity. An American consumes about 13,000 kw/hr of electricity per year. “The citizens of poor countries — including Nepalis, Cambodians and Bangladeshis — may not aspire to that level of use, which includes a great deal of waste. But they would appreciate assistance from developed nations, and the financial institutions they control, to build up the kind of energy infrastructure that could deliver the comfort and abundance that Americans and Europeans enjoy.”
The US and its allies have often said no, even as they rely on coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and nuclear power for 95 percent of its energy, yet as Todd Moss, from the Center for Global Development says, “Yet we place major restrictions on financing all four of these sources of power overseas.”
The Times notes, “Of far greater consequence is the way the West’s environmental agenda undermines the very goals it professes to achieve and threatens to advance devastating climate change rather than retard it.”
“It is about pragmatism, about trade-offs,” said Barry Brook, professor of environmental sustainability at the University of Tasmania in Australia. “Most societies will not follow low-energy, low-development paths, regardless of whether they work or not to protect the environment.”
The Times writes, “If billions of impoverished humans are not offered a shot at genuine development, the environment will not be saved. And that requires not just help in financing low-carbon energy sources, but also a lot of new energy, period. Offering a solar panel for every thatched roof is not going to cut it.”
They argue changing the conversation will not be easy. “Our world of seven billion people — expected to reach 11 billion by the end of the century — will require an entirely different environmental paradigm.”
A group of scholars involved in the environmental debate, which includes Professor Brook, as well as Joyashree Roy of Jadavpur University, Ruth DeFries of Columbia University, and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute in Oakland, issued their “Eco-modernist Manifesto.”
It is, “A manifesto to use humanity’s extraordinary powers in service of creating a good Anthropocene.” They write, “We offer this statement in the belief that both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable. By committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction, we believe that such a future might be achieved. As such, we embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future.”
“Natural systems will not, as a general rule, be protected or enhanced by the expansion of humankind’s dependence upon them for sustenance and well-being,” they wrote.
To mitigate climate change, spare nature and address global poverty requires nothing less, they argue, than “intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world.”
The Times notes, “This new framework favors a very different set of policies than those now in vogue. Eating the bounty of small-scale, local farming, for example, may be fine for denizens of Berkeley and Brooklyn. But using it to feed a world of nine billion people would consume every acre of the world’s surface. Big Agriculture, using synthetic fertilizers and modern production techniques, could feed many more people using much less land and water.”
“As the manifesto notes, as much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution, when humanity was supposedly in harmony with Mother Nature. Over the last half century, the amount of land required for growing crops and animal feed per average person declined by half.”
“If we want the developing world to reach even half our level of development we can’t do it without strategies to intensify production,” said Harvard’s David Keith.
“We need to intensify agriculture in places that we have already developed rather than develop new places,” Australian conservationist William Laurance said. “What is happening today is much more chaotic.”
The Times writes, “Development would allow people in the world’s poorest countries to move into cities — as they did decades ago in rich nations — and get better educations and jobs. Urban living would accelerate demographic transitions, lowering infant mortality rates and allowing fertility rates to decline, taking further pressure off the planet.”
“By understanding and promoting these emergent processes, humans have the opportunity to re-wild and re-green the Earth — even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends,” the manifesto argues.
“Decoupling of human welfare from environmental impacts will require a sustained commitment to technological progress and the continuing evolution of social, economic, and political institutions alongside those changes,” says the manifesto.
“There are enormous energy demands,” Professor DeFries noted. “It will be some time before we can fulfill them with wind and solar energy. It is only realistic that there will be a lot of coal and gas along the way.”
The Times writes, “Until they are developed, poor countries will require access to other forms of energy — including hydroelectric power from dams, natural gas, perhaps even coal.”
They continue, “For all the environment-related objections one could pose to these paths, the alternative seems indefensible: Let the poor of the world burn dung and wood, further degrading the world’s forests. Or put solar panels on their huts so they can recharge their cellphones.”
This is the real question as we ponder how to save the planet from human energy consumption – how do we do that without forcing billions to remain in dire poverty? This is a question that many environmentalists have never really pondered or addressed.
—David M. Greenwald reporting