Normative Narratives


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Trump’s War on the Environment

Despite President Trump’s “pledge” to “promote clean air and clean water”, things are not looking good on the climate change front. By targeting key U.S. policies–the Clean Power Plan and vehicle emission standards–and international agreements–the Paris Climate Accord and the Green Climate Fund–Trump’s administration is threatening to undo recent progress made combating climate change.

Trump’s proposed budget would cut EPA funding by 31%. Scott Pruitt, the new EPA head, said he is unconvinced “that carbon dioxide from human activity is the main driver of climate change.” This is an old tobacco industry tactic, justifying inaction by saying that more research is needed–it is not, there is overwhelming scientific consensus on the subject.

Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said of investing in climate change mitigation, “we’re not spending money on that anymore. We consider that to be a waste of your money”. Trump is also reconsidering the government’s use of the “social cost of carbon” metric, which takes into account the potential economic damage from carbon emissions that would result from proposed policies.

All things considered, it is not hyperbolic to say that the Trump administration is carrying out a multi-pronged “War on the Environment”

U.S Emissions–The Clean Power Plan and Vehicle Emission Standards:

Pie chart of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by economic sector in 2015. 29 percent is from electricity, 27 percent is from transportation, 21 percent is from industry, 12 percent is from commercial and residential, and 9 percent is from agriculture.

Greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. are highly concentrated in the electricity, transportation, and industry sectors. These three sectors accounted for 77% of 2014 emissions according to the EPA.

While a national cap-and-trade policy or carbon tax would help reduce emissions across the board, partisan disagreement has prevented such a policy from being enacted. To get around this gridlock, the Obama administration targeted key sectors through existing legislation and executive action. Specifically, the Clean Power Plan (part of the Clean Air Act) addresses emissions in the electricity sector, while stricter vehicle emission standards address emissions in the transportation sector. These important new rules are now in the crosshairs of the Trump administration:

“The tailpipe pollution regulations were among Mr. Obama’s major initiatives to reduce global warming and were put forth jointly by the E.P.A. and the Transportation Department. They would have forced automakers to build passenger cars that achieve an average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, compared with about 36 miles per gallon today.

Those regulations are locked into place for vehicle model years through 2021, and just before Mr. Trump took office, the E.P.A. put forth a final rule intended to cement them for vehicles built from 2022 through 2025. However, the E.P.A. did not jointly release its plan to do so with the Transportation Department, leaving a legal loophole for the Trump administration to take advantage of.

The E.P.A.’s Clean Power Plan regulations, which would cut climate-warming pollution from power plants, will probably be much harder for Mr. Pruitt to undo. He will have to legally withdraw the existing rule and propose a new rule to replace it, a process that could take up to two years and is expected to be fraught with legal challenges and delays along the way.”

Undoing the Clean Power Plan and/or stricter vehicle emission standards would have devastating impacts on air quality (and therefore people’s health) and the fight against climate change.

Global Emissions–The Paris Climate Accord and The Green Climate Fund

The Paris Climate Accord, agreed to by 194 countries, is built on the concept of Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). These contributions represent a country’s climate change mitigation targets, taking into consideration its economic ability and level of development. Trump has vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Accord.

Failure by the U.S. to realize our commitments (a certainty if the Clean Power Plan and stricter vehicle emissions standards are scrapped) would not completely undo the Paris Accord–other countries have stated they will press ahead with its implementation. But, as the world’s second largest greenhouse gas emitter, such a failure would surely crimp the Accord’s effectiveness.

Furthermore, as INDCs are to be updated every 5 years, future commitments by other countries are likely to be less ambitious without U.S. commitment, leadership, and funding. Climate change experts are relying on more ambitious future commitments to stave off the worst impacts of climate change. The Accord was seen as a starting point towards stronger future action, now even this starting point is in jeopardy.

What about the commitments of developing countries, many of which face increasing energy needs and have untapped fossil fuels reserves? While it is true that sustainable development is a challenge, there are reasons to be optimistic. These countries have neither the strong fossil fuel lobbyists nor the “sunk” energy grid infrastructure costs the U.S. does. Furthermore, these countries tend to rely more on agriculture for their economic output, placing a premium on predictable climate patterns and environmental protection. Therefore, with a little prodding in the right direction, developing countries may be willing to largely forgo fossil fuel use–this is where the Green Climate Fund (GCF) comes into play:

“The agreement reaffirms an earlier collective pledge from the developed nations to jointly provide $100 billion a year in grants, loans, and investments in developing countries, from public and private sources.

With energy use soaring over the past decade in Asia, it is clear that helping emerging economies avoid tapping their coal reserves in favor of installing renewable sources in solar, wind, tidal, wave, and geothermal energy will be essential in mitigating their carbon emissions without unfairly stifling their economic development.”

Trump’s proposed budget would completely eliminate America’s contribution to the Green Climate Fund. U.S. leadership is needed to galvanize global efforts to even come close to the lofty GCF goal of $100 billion a year. Without this funding, poorer countries will not be able to meet their commitments under the Paris Accord, further undermining its effectiveness.

If absent Green Climate Funding developing countries develop unsustainably, efforts taken by developed countries to lower their emissions would likely prove inadequate in preventing the worst impacts of climate change.

“It’s the Economy (and National Security), Stupid”

Even if you do not care about the environment or sustainable development, climate change has economic and national security implications for the U.S.

“In terms of returns on investment, climate finance is ridiculously cheap for what America gets for it: goodwill and cooperation, less warming, clean and resilient growth, and, importantly, fewer refugees.

What’s more, these renewable energy sectors hold vast business potential for American companies wanting to supply technical expertise and equipment. Establishing the U.S. as a leader in green energy is directly in the Trump administration’s interest as it aspires to slow, or at least balance, China’s expanding global clout.

Aid to help poor rural farmers on marginal lands adapt and thrive can be the key to avoiding a surge of climate refugees flowing either into already crowded urban centers in the developing world or, worse yet, forcing people to set out on dangerous voyages over land or water in search of a livable future. In security terms, the U.S. military and relief agencies alike understand that an ounce of this kind of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Some people may dismiss the notion that climate change is a national security risk as liberal-hippy nonsense, but this is simply not the case. Trump’s own Defense Secretary James Mattis stated climate change was a national security risk during his confirmation hearing.

On the economic front, clean energy related activities already are and will increasingly be big employers in the U.S. However, growth in future clean energy employment could be compromised if Trump’s budget for the Department of Energy comes to pass. “The [budget] plan would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds ‘high-risk, high-reward’ research.” This is exactly the type of public R&D needed to ensure the U.S. is a leader in the emerging clean energy economy.

Multilateral clean energy financing also promotes American exports. “…of the top 30 markets for U.S. renewable energy exports—as determined by the Commerce Department—more than half are eligible for GCF [Green Climate Fund] investments. As has occurred in other multilateral environment funds, the GCF is beginning to directly finance some projects that have U.S. sponsors or use U.S. equipment and services.”

China aims to spend at least $360 Billion on renewable energy by 2020 because it understands the value of being the global leader in the clean energy economy. Trump talks about “being tough on China”, however his stance on clean energy investment is anything but.

Resistance Is Not Futile

As with any war, the Trump administration will face resistance in its efforts to undo important environmental protections. Obviously liberals will oppose Trump, and many foreign leaders will try to get him to reconsider his position. The state of California, a progressive thorn in the Trump administration’s side on a number of issues, recently upheld stricter vehicle emission standards in a challenge to the aforementioned rollbacks at the federal level.

Perhaps most significantly, however, is the resistance to Trump’s anti environmental protection agenda that is growing in the Republican party:

The activists’ efforts have not swayed anywhere near a majority yet on Capitol Hill. Only 20 or so of the 237 Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives have spoken out on climate change this year. But they hope to build a big enough bloc in Congress, or enough influence at the White House, to temper Trump’s agenda.

“It shouldn’t surprise anyone that more and more Republicans are interested in this issue,” said Republican Representative Carlos Curbelo of Florida. “This issue was regrettably politicized some 20 or so years ago, and we are in the process of taking some of the politics out.”

The negative effects of environmental degradation–economic, national security, and health–are felt by people across the political spectrum. If enough Republicans take a stand, it just might be enough to get the fight against climate change back on track.

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Green News: The U.S. and China Discuss Energy Poverty, Sustainable Development in Africa

“Common But Differentiated Responsibilities”:

During the recent APEC summit, President’s Obama and Xi Jinping announced what could be a landmark environmental agreement. The U.S. pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent from 2005 levels by 2025. China pledged to reach peak emissions by 2030, while increasing its renewable energy consumption to 20% of total consumption (China currently gets about 10% of its energy from zero emission sources).

This announcement has been received well by the international community. With the two largest GHG emitters on board (in gross emissions, the map above shows per-capita emissions), many believe this announcement could galvanize support for a legally enforceable climate treaty, to be finalized during the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Another potential area of cooperation, which has received far less attention but is nonetheless significant, were discussions between the U.S. and China regarding clean energy investment in Africa (original article):

The United States is considering partnering with China on improving electricity in Africa and the proposal could be part of bilateral discussions when President Barack Obama visits Beijing next week, two sources involved told Reuters.

The 48 countries of sub-Saharan Africa, with a combined population of 800 million, produce roughly the same amount of power as Spain, a country of just 46 million.

The shortage imposes a massive burden on economies in the continent, constraining growth and leading to hundreds of millions of people remaining mired in poverty.

China’s policies in Africa have also been described by some African leaders as “neo-colonial” – lending money to impoverished states to secure natural resources and support state-owned Chinese construction companies.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hinted this week that discussions during the APEC conference to conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) would involve energy agreements in other parts of the world.

“The TPP is not only a trade agreement but also a strategic opportunity for the United States and other Pacific nations to come together, to bind together,” Kerry said in a speech in Washington on Tuesday.

“Second, powering a clean energy revolution will help us address climate change while simultaneously jump-starting economies around the world,” Kerry added.

Approximately 1.3 billion people in the world live without access to energy, 95% of which live in Sub-Saharan Africa or developing Asia. Without access to energy, it is impossible for a society to modernize; energy access is an indispensable component of poverty reduction. How those who currently live without access to energy fulfill their energy needs will be a primary determinant in meeting global emission targets.

According to the International Energy Agency, 2/3 of known fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground in order to reach global emissions targets. This will require both ambitious climate agreements from large emitters such as the U.S. and China, as well as aggressive investments in clean energy in countries that do not currently emit as much.

(For more reading on Africa’s Energy and Economic landscape, check out the 2014 World Energy Outlook Special Report on Africa)

Natural Resource Revenues, Accountability, and Development:

The Post-2015 Development Agenda, while appreciating the role of official development aid (ODA) in financing development initiatives, also recognizes the limits of relying on such a volatile source of funding. In order to reliably secure the finances needed for sustainable human development, developing countries will need to mobilize natural resource revenues in a responsible way.

This is admittedly  tall order. Historically, the “natural resource curse” has led natural resource revenues to be extracted by corruption rulers, cementing the rule of regressive, extractive regimes. Nigeria’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, while imperfect, provides a model for bringing transparency and accountability to natural resource revenue management.

Neocolonialism and corruption will not lead to development. When it comes to investing in Africa, the “return on investment” is in creating stable, resilient allies, who can positively contribute to global security and become new markets for trade; it is a long-game, not a short-game.

Lots of people have their hands out to grab resource “rents”. Therefore, a strong network of accountability is required if natural resource revenues are ever to benefit a countries poor / marginalized. This network includes social accountability (individuals, civil society organizations, and NGOs); corporate accountability (businesses operating in developing countries); and good governance at all levels (local, national, and international).

The Extraterritorial Responsibilities of Global Leadership:

During the APEC summit, President Obama urged China to be a partner in ensuring world order:

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Monday a successful China was in the interests of the United States and the world but Beijing had to be a partner in underwriting international order, and not undermine it.

“Our message is that we want to see China successful,” Obama told a news conference. “But, as they grow, we want them to be a partner in underwriting the international order, not undermining it.

He urged China to move “definitively” to a more market-based exchange rate and to stand up for human rights and freedom of the press.

At the risk of sounding cliche (or like a Spiderman move), with great power comes great responsibility. If China wants to be recognized as a global leader, it must show the world it is capable of fulfilling the obligations associated with such a role.


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Green News: The Role of “Microgrids” In An “All Of The Above” Approach to Combating Climate Change

Original article:

AFTER years of hype, renewable energy has gone mainstream in much of the United States and, increasingly, around the world.

But many communities that need small-scale renewable energy remain out in the cold — literally and figuratively.

In Alaska, for instance, the vast majority of the more than 200 small, isolated communities populated primarily by native Alaskans rely on dirty, expensive diesel fuel to generate their electricity and heat. As in other remote communities throughout the world that have no grid to fall back on, diesel generators now provide the only reliable option for these desperately poor towns to meet their essential energy needs.

These villages buy and burn several hundred thousand gallons of diesel fuel per year in inefficient generators at costs that can approach $10 per gallon while spewing unhealthy fumes and soot. To ease their diesel dependence, some Alaskan villages have been able to secure financing to construct wind projects and small-scale, centralized electricity systems, known as micro grids.

The Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory has been working with the Department of the Interior and industry on the Remote Community Renewable Energy Partnership to make this happen. Drawing from the Department of Defense’s successful deployment of small renewable energy-based systems to support forward-stationed troops, the lab is developing design specifications for a modular renewable energy system that aims to produce much cleaner energy, at half of today’s costs. This would be accomplished by replacing 75 percent of diesel use for electricity and heat in the Arctic villages (relying primarily on wind power) and for electricity and cooling in the tropics (relying primarily on solar power).

On a parallel track, Energy Secretary Ernest J. Moniz recently announced a public-private collaboration called Beyond the Grid to leverage $1 billion in investments over five years to bring small-scale solutions to communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Both initiatives address the huge, debilitating energy deficit faced by millions around the world.

The economic and quality-of-life benefits that flow when cash-strapped communities have access to affordable and healthier clean energy are transformative. Just as the public-private partnership that developed and deployed cleaner-burning, efficient cook stoves has changed the lives of millions in Africa and Asia for the better, so also will these renewable energy systems.

Let’s not leave these ideas on the drawing board. The United States will take its turn next April as the chair of the eight-nation Arctic Council, a forum of the nations that border the Arctic. In setting the council’s agenda, the United States can make it a priority to bring practical and clean energy options to isolated northern communities.

Such an effort would put a humanitarian face on the country’s commitment to address climate change. We would directly help our most energy-needy citizens, while opening up a new global market for American businesses and showing the world what innovative clean energy technology can do for the human condition, and our planet.

“Microgrids” fit into a larger context-sensitive approach to sustainable development.

For larger urban areas, traditional power grids make the most sense. In places with smaller populations, Microgrids could provide cleaner energy at a lower cost than burning diesel fuel. In less developed countries, where weak financial institutions and security concerns make even microgrids unattainable, individualized mobile power generating units may make the most sense.

Each type of grid can be supplied with various forms of renewable energy / fuel cells, storing excess energy in batteries to make them more reliable (in both large and smaller scale projects).

On a global scale, reaching climate change targets (particularly the UNFCCC’s target of limiting warming to 2 °C over preindustrial levels) will take global coordination. China’s recent energy plan has drawn criticism from environmental groups, who believe it will worsen climate change.

One way to counter the inability of governments to agree on a global climate change framework is to make low / zero emission energy sources competitive in open markets. On one side, countries must stop providing incentives to consume “traditional” high emission energy sources. On the other hand, we must continue to subsidize R & D and creative financing (such as feed-in tariffs, which enable people / companies to pay for renewable energy infrastructure by selling back excess energy to the grid) to promote green energy use, particularly in developing countries.

There are both moral (protecting the interests of the voiceless–the world’s most vulnerable groups and future generations) and economic (becoming a leader in a growth industry, and the associated job creation) reasons to be excited about renewable green energy.

Tackling two of the greatest global challenges of the 21st century; ending extreme poverty and promoting environmental sustainability; are not irreconcilable, but they are also far from inevitable. It  requires, as President Obama has called it, an “all of the above” approach. Microgrids seem poised to play an important role in this approach.

The absence of a global climate change framework is no reason to eschew environmental protection. Every kilowatt of energy produced without GHG emissions is a step in the right direction; let’s not allow perfection to be the enemy of progress.


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Economic Outlook: From The Left and Right, Differing Views of Future Risks

When you ask an American about the future risks facing their country, the answer you get will likely vary depending on political affiliation. Those who lean left (“liberals”) will likely mention climate change, while those who lean right (“conservatives”) will likely mention social spending / national debt. (According to a recent Gallup poll, peoples views also tend to align based on age; understandably older respondents care more about economic growth, while younger respondents favor environmental concerns):

According to Pew Research Center surveys conducted last year, 25 percent of self-identified Republicans said they considered global climate change to be “a major threat.” The only countries with such low levels of climate concern are Egypt, where 16 percent of respondents called climate change a major threat, and Pakistan, where 15 percent did.

By comparison, 65 percent of Democrats in the United States gave that answer, putting them in the same range as Brazilians (76 percent), Japanese (72 percent), Chileans (68 percent) or Italians and Spaniards (64 percent). If you combine Democrats and independents into one group, 52 percent called climate change a major threat, according to Pew. That’s the same broad range of concern as in Germany (56 percent), Canada and France (54 percent), Australia (52 percent) or Britain (48 percent).

Over all, between 40 percent and 45 percent of Americans in recent Pew polls have called climate change a major concern (with a similar share of independents giving that answer).

The Republican skepticism about climate change extends across the party, though it’s strongest among those who consider themselves part of the Tea Party. Ten percent of those aligned with the Tea Party called climate change a major threat, compared with 35 percent of Republicans who did not identify with the Tea Party.

According to those most concerned about climate change, continued inaction will lead to multiple catastrophes: coastal flooding, ecosystem / food-system disruption, air and water quality degradation, and an increase in extreme weather events to name a few. “How could we leave such a future to our children?”, they ask.

According to those most concerned about economic issues, continued fiscal irresponsibility will also lead to a plethora of adverse consequences: rising interest rates, [hyper]inflation, and ballooning national debt (never-mind that these two consequences are incompatible, as inflation erodes debt). The Government will be unable to pay for future public programs, contributing to the general “decline” of American. “Forget that ‘global warming’ conspiracy, how can we leave this future to our children?” they counter.

Both sides paint dire pictures that are entirely separate from one another. Both arguments appeal to “the children!!” to augment their political beliefs. So which argument holds more merit? Well lets look at the facts:

Climate Change:

It’s been an extraordinary six weeks for climate scientists. Any lingering doubts about the immediacy of climate impacts on the lives of Americans are now permanently laid to rest, thanks to four extensive reports from thousands of scientists.

It began with a straight-talking, no-nonsense report called “What We Know” from the world’s largest general science organization (AAAS) earlier this spring that laid out in clear detail why the entire scientific community no longer has any doubts whatsoever about the nature and extent of the climate risk to our economy and communities.

Weeks later, the second and third of successive reports from different arms of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued separate, detailed reports on the current science around climate change impacts in the world, and the potential costs to society and the economy right now if we don’t change our energy patterns. 

And then this week, a report written by hundreds of American scientists culminated this six-week run of world-class, peer-reviewed science reports with the congressionally-mandated National Climate Assessment that laid climate impacts literally at the doorsteps and window panes of most Americans.

Climate change isn’t a computer model, a fuzzy prediction, a cute picture of polar bears on shrinking icebergs, or some far-off, distant threat that people who aren’t born yet will have to deal with. It’s here, now – and it’s disrupting our lives.

It’s affecting food prices through extended droughts and flooding basements in extreme rainfall events – the types of dry and wet extremes that scientists have been telling us for years would be part of a changing world. Now we can see these things with our own eyes, out our own windows.

The scientific consensus is that climate change is real, it is man made, and the adverse effects–while more pronounced in the future–are already beginning to occur.

National Debt:

There are two sides to national debt, revenues (taxes) and expenditures (government spending). Whenever expenditures exceed revenues, the government must either take money from its surplus (which we do not currently have), or issue new debt to finance its spending. Every dollar of debt has an interest rate attached to it, the government’s borrowing cost.

With large annual deficits, an increase in interest rates on bonds would indeed cause a great increase in government debt. However, the fiscal responsibility doomsday theorists have been proved wrong:

In what sense did economics work well? Economists who took their own textbooks seriously quickly diagnosed the nature of our economic malaise: We were suffering from inadequate demand. The financial crisis and the housing bust created an environment in which everyone was trying to spend less, but my spending is your income and your spending is my income, so when everyone tries to cut spending at the same time the result is an overall decline in incomes and a depressed economy. And we know (or should know) that depressed economies behave quite differently from economies that are at or near full employment.

For example, many seemingly knowledgeable people — bankers, business leaders, public officials — warned that budget deficits would lead to soaring interest rates and inflation. But economists knew that such warnings, which might have made sense under normal conditions, were way off base under the conditions we actually faced. Sure enough, interest and inflation rates stayed low.

And the diagnosis of our troubles as stemming from inadequate demand had clear policy implications: as long as lack of demand was the problem, we would be living in a world in which the usual rules didn’t apply. In particular, this was no time to worry about budget deficits and cut spending, which would only deepen the depression…We needed more government spending, not less, to fill the hole left by inadequate private demand…Since 2010, we’ve seen a sharp decline in discretionary spendingand an unprecedented decline in budget deficits, and the result has been anemic growth and long-term unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1930s.

To be sure, eventually interest rates will increase and deflationary pressures will subside–the economy will emerge from it’s “liquidity trap“. Here’s the good news, emergence from the liquidity trap corresponds with near full employment (not zero unemployment, but the “natural” rate of unemployment). Interest rates and inflation will not rise until the economy is in much better shape, meaning increased interest costs will be at least partially offset by a decline in “automatic stabilizer” spending (spending on poverty reduction programs–SNAP, unemployment insurance, etc.–which increase automatically during economic downturns).

Factoring for automatic stabilizers, Krugman’s analysis shows that we are barely running a primary deficit at all. True we should not leave past debt for future generations, but we should also not under-invest in current generations / pursue wrong-minded economic policies because of past policy follies. When you invoke the specter of “the children!!, consider current generations of children and young adults who have been seen their futures compromised / delayed due to political failures.

Going Forward:

On one hand, the risks associated with inaction on climate change are real and rising. On the other hand, the risks associated with high levels of national debt have proven overblown and are partially self-correcting. That is not to say there are long-term drivers of debt which must be addressed in order to reign in long term fiscal deficits. But the U.S. Government has the benefit of being a reserve currency and a “safe haven” for investment–both factors pushing down the interest rate our government pays to borrow money. We can pay down our debts responsibly and counter-cyclically, when the economy recovers. 

The common perpetrator in both these future risks–national debt and environmental degradation–are corporate interests and the politicians that enable them. Consider these historic tables of government tax revenues by source (pg. 34-35). Personal income tax contributions have been fairy stable, while corporate income taxes have decreases drastically over the past decades.

The greatest threat to our Nation’s future is not public / social spending, it is our continued inability to pursue comprehensive tax reform (including carbon taxation).

Corporate profits are at an all time high; perhaps big corporations do not need a healthy domestic economy to prosper in a globalized world. But people, as ever, still need to have their basic needs met. It is up to our leaders to ensure these corporations, which benefit from every element of public spending (infrastructure, technological innovation via public R & D, a skilled workforce), pay their fare share towards financing necessary government expenses.

And it is up to us to find and elect these leaders, in spite of powerful forces acting against these reforms

Please turn out and vote in the 2014 midterm elections. Regardless of your political affiliation, demand bipartisan Congressmen with a history of not being beholden to corporate interests. Despite pervasive cynicism, we the people still hold the power in this country.

Won’t somebody please think of the children!


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Green News: Access to Energy, Poverty Reduction, and a Reason to be Optimistic About Renewable Energy Use in the Developing World

The image shows projections for COemissions and global temperature changes based on different scenarios. Since we cannot know the future of environmental policies, technological advances, or economic growth, projections based on are the best way to hypothesize about these issues. One thing should become apparent after viewing these graphs–while the future is yet undetermined, failure to take action will have dire consequences.

Economic development is an essential component of poverty reduction in the worlds least developed countries (LDCs). However, economic development /poverty reduction are impossible without increased access to energy. Looking at the UN’s “My World 2015” survey, most of the 16 variables “for a better future” rely, to varying degrees, on energy access.

Original article:

In a speech on Monday in Warsaw, the United Nations’ top officer on climate change warned coal industry executives that much of the world’s coal will need to be left in the ground if international climate goals are to be met.

Godfrey G. Gomwe, chairman of the World Coal Association’s energy and climate committee, responded in a speech that, with “1.3 billion people in the world who live without access to electricity,” the questions of climate change and poverty reduction could not be separated.

“A life lived without access to modern energy is a life lived in poverty,” said Mr. Gomwe, who is also chief executive of the mining company Anglo American’s thermal coal business. “As much as some may wish it, coal is not going away.”

Todd Stern, the United States envoy on climate change, said at a news conference in Warsaw that the world’s reliance on coal is “not going to change overnight.” But, “high efficiency coal is certainly better than low efficiency coal,” he added, noting that carbon capture and storage technology was “the most important hope” for coal’s future.

Does this mean that the goals of (extreme) poverty reduction and environmental sustainability are incomparable? No, international efforts for poverty reduction have taken place in the context of “Sustainable Development“. While coal will not “go away”, the chief executive of a coal business is hardly an unbiased agent–he is likely to overstate coals importance in the global energy portfolio. In order to reconcile these two goals, LDCs must meet growing energy demands primarily with zero / low emissions renewable energy sources.

I, for one, am optimistic that LDCs will pursue sustainable development. This is not blind optimism, it is based on political and economic realities.

In the U.S., renewable energy industries face the impediment of strong, established “traditional” energy industries (such as coal power). These industries have billion dollar profit margins and employ large numbers of people. Furthermore, infrastructure or “energy grids” already exist which may not be able to distribute renewable energy, representing large “sunk costs” to switching to renewable energy. In sum, these factors lead to strong local level support and national lobbying efforts for traditional electric. The benefits of renewable energy are realized in the future, while the costs (higher energy prices) and resistance from special interests occur in the present.

In LDCs, where many people are “off the grid”, these “incumbency” obstacles do not exist. In LDCs, people rely primarily on the agrarian economy, and are therefore more likely to support environmentally sustainable energy sources. Furthermore, “off-the-grid-renewable energy” represents a way of bypassing the large fixed costs associated with building traditional energy grids–something that is extremely important in the context of the world’s poorest countries:

Sub-Saharan Africa is also seen as a promising context for renewables. An analogy with the region’s adoption of mobile phones suggests sub-Saharan Africa could dispense with polluting, grid-connected power plants – just as it skipped landline telephones — and move straight into distributed generation from renewables.

Yet a note of caution enters any forecast for any region that so consistently outwits the sharpest analysts. Bhattacharyya tallies up several points for optimism but, while sharing Cohen’s enthusiasm, expresses doubt about the scale of development.

‘The market-driven approach’ has started to ‘flourish’ in areas such as Kenya, he says. He also sees grounds for optimism in how global attention on the lack of access to clean energies by agencies such as the UN, IEA and World Bank has also raised local recognition and awareness of the issue.

In ‘an optimistic case’ he forecasts that sub-Saharan Africa could add a few gigawatts through off-grid technologies, bringing electricity to millions of its people.

‘There is surely huge potential for off-grid options but it is difficult to tell how much is really likely to materialise,’ he says.

The issue with financing renewable energy projects was supposed to be addressed by the UN Green Climate Fund; developed countries promised $100 billion a year to the developed world by 2020 to help cope with and reverse climate change. Issues over “common but differentiated responsibilities“, as well as austerity measures in response to the Great recession, call the availability of these resources into question.

One potential means of making up this funding gap is through a so-called “feed in tariff“:

The report by the World Future Council says providing feed-in tariffs for developing countries so that they can finance setting up large-scale renewable systems and feed electricity to their grids is the best way forward for the fund.

Feed-in tariffs provide the owners of small or large-scale wind and solar arrays with a guaranteed price for electricity over 20 years, so the investor is certain to get a return on their capital. The scheme has worked in developed countries like Germany and Italy to rapidly boost renewable output.

An added problem in developing countries is making sure that the national or local grid can take up and use the electricity generated. Some developed countries have already had difficulties with this, so sorting out the grid must be part of any financing package, the report says.

The report envisages 100 gigawatts of electricity being funded in this way by 2020 – the equivalent of the output of 100 large-scale coal-fired power plants. This would cost 1.3 billion euros a year to fund, sustained over two decades. 

Feed-in tariffs require energy grids to feed-into, and for that reason are not a viable option for the most impoverished / remote areas in the world which do not currently have traditional energy grids. For areas in the developing countries with traditional grids, this is a viable solution. For other areas, financing for off-the-grid renewable energy must be made available. The ability to reconcile economic development, environmental sustainability, and poverty reduction–sustainable development–depends on it.

Update: Alternatively, perhaps off the grid renewable energy can be stored in batteries and sold as part of a feed-in tariff. I know advances are being made in large scale renewable storage in large batteries, I wonder if there is a way to make this work on a small scale as well. Just a though…


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Transparency Thursday: Climate Change, Pollution, and Premature Death

Smog in central Shanghai. Credit: oliverlaumann/flickr.

Here at Normative Narratives, the negative impacts of Climate Change are always a hot-button issue. In previous posts, I have examined the linkages between climate change and drought / conflict and assessed the sustainability of development in the BRIC countries.

In this assessment, we saw that a disproportionately large amount of total world coal production is in China (49.5%) and India (5.6%). Furthermore, 2/3 of all proposed new coal plants worldwide are in India in China.

In light of these facts, it is alarming when there are reports of record numbers of pollution-related premature deaths in China and India. In 2010, 2.1 million people died prematurely in Asia from pollution-related causes. Including indoor (unclean cooking techniques) and outdoor pollution, pollution is the second most common cause of death in the world after blood pressure.

Before we go any further, I would like to reiterate that these are premature deaths. Perhaps many of these people were not in great health to begin with or led otherwise unhealthy lifestyles–you must view these figures with this in mind and draw your own conclusions.

To put this number (2.1 million) in perspective, in 2000 800,000 people died from pollution related causes in the whole world. There were 6.8 million combat related deaths in the four year span covering WWI, averaging 1.7 million a year. Japan estimates that a total of 440,000 people were killed from atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. People are dying prematurely from pollution in numbers eclipsed only the most egregious events in human history, such as WWII and select genocides.

No wonder China vetoed U.N. R2P action in Syria on sovereignty grounds; there are mass killings in China going unchecked by the government. The numbers are even more troubling when you consider the Chinese governments dismal history of transparency and openness–these numbers are probably understated.

China continues to develop economically, however unprecedented economic growth has led to only modest standard of living improvements. China has yet to become truly “modernized”. Continued reliance on cheap labor and lax environmental standards, coupled with restrictions on human rights and questionable government transparency will cause China to be highly scrutinized in the international community, and will prevent it from fulfilling its true potential as a world power.

India, as a democracy, is much more transparent and accepting of western values than China. However, in search of economic growth India, like China, has foregone environmentally sustainable development. This is especially relevant as many global climate initiatives have stalled in recent years, with developing countries and the developed world remaining in stalemate over who should pay for the majority of global “cleanup” projects. It is true that the developed world has been the leading contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the past, but if going forward the developing world (or Asia at least) is the main contributor to these emissions, then it must pay its fair share too.

Experts believe it is booming automobile demand that is the catalyst behind this disturbing trend. While this is indisputable, I would also have to imagine large-scale coal production is a leading contributor to air pollution related premature deaths. Health-related accountability of emissions by producers, alongside a global carbon tax, could stimulate in the global transition from “dirty” to “clean” energy.