10 December 2012

Salad for Ethiopia: How Climate Policy Keeps Poor People Poor

The dirty secret of climate policy is that it works against the interests of poor people around the world who want to become rich like you and me. I have discussed how this works in terms of the definitions that we use in international assessments -- One way to create scenarios which have both carbon dioxide stabilized at 450 ppm and a dramatic expansion of energy access around the world is to define "energy access" at a very low level -- such as 2% of the amount that Americans consume in their households every year.

In this manner, international officials can make statements like the following:
Bringing electricity to everyone by 2030 would require electricity generation in 2030 to be only 3% higher than generation in our Reference Scenario . . . the increase in energy-related global CO2 emissions would be a mere 0.9% by 2030.
Such claims sounds great -- energy for everyone, hardly any more carbon dioxide emissions. Of course, behind the numbers lies the ugly reality of poor people staying mostly poor and with very little energy access, at least not of the kind that we have available.

The doublespeak is bad enough, but as Todd Moss of the Center for Global Development explains in a very hard-hitting post, such language and thinking gets translated into actual policies:
Imagine the United States sending low-calorie food aid to Ethiopia in response to the global obesity epidemic. Absurd, right? Even if global waistline trends are worrisome, Ethiopians didn't create the problem. Such a policy would be futile since it would have no noticeable impact on the global aggregate.

Worse, while obesity may be a very real concern, Ethiopians are understandably more focused on undernourishment. The United States should aim instead to increase caloric intake in that part of the world. To punish those we should be helping when we can't even tackle the obesity problem at home makes the policy not only misguided, but also morally dubious.

Sadly, that is pretty much what the United States does on energy. In response to rising global carbon dioxide emissions, the U.S. government put restrictions on the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that is a principal tool for promoting investment in poor countries. A recent rule, added in response to a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, imposes blind caps on the total CO2 emissions in OPIC's portfolio, which ends up barring the agency from nearly all non-renewable electricity projects.

Even if global carbon emissions are worrisome, it seems misplaced to ask people in poor countries to bear the costs of a problem they didn't create. Ethiopians emit less than 1 percent of what Americans emit on a per capita basis, and Americans still get most of their electricity from non-renewable coal and natural gas. The scale of energy poverty is such that sizable populations will still require old-school grid power.

OPIC's carbon cap is also largely pointless since it could have no conceivable impact on global emissions. While climate change is a very real concern, Africans are understandably more focused on the problem that seven in ten people living on the continent have no electricity at all. Because energy poverty is harmful to health, education, and prosperity, the United States should aim to increase access to electricity in Africa. To punish those we should be helping when we can't even implement a carbon cap at home makes the policy not only misguided, but also morally dubious.
Moss proposes lifting the OPIC carbon cap for the poorest countries, explaining that we in the US have no such cap yet we are refusing to extend the same level of energy access that we enjoy to poor countries as a means of keeping their energy sources from emitting carbon dioxide. "Morally dubious" seems a generous term.

We have decided -- not explicitly -- that we value carbon emissions more than energy access. Such choices are made all the time in democracies, but this one is made largely out of sight. The frustrating irony of course is that if we were to truly take on the challenge of global energy access, it might provide one way to stimulate much more progress on energy innovation and move us beyond the dead end that is current climate policy, which is not reducing emissions yet keeping poor people poor.

An explicit debate over energy access consequences of climate policy is one worth having. It would reveal the true scale of the global energy challenge (more on that soon), but also would bring out into the open the ugly, morally dubious reality that the policies we have chosen for dealing with carbon dioxide come at the expense of poor people around the world.


  1. I clicked on the 'added in response to a lawsuit' hyperlink in the text, it took me to http://www.opic.gov/doing-business-us/OPIC-policies/related-documents couldn't see any 'lawsuit'?

    Wrong link, or me being thick?

  2. -1-Roddy

    Some details:


    Apparently I too was a plaintiff, based on the role of my city council.

  3. I see you had standing because you had 'economic and other damages from climate change'. Sorry to hear that. Hope you're ok. Did you slip on some extreme weather?

  4. I do wish your anti-spam system would recognise that I am a Good Guy, I've been here before.

  5. There have been decades where the "west" could have helped the poor of the world with cheap electricity before global warming became popular. Nothing has come about - Why? certainly not through green policies/carbon taxes: there were none - is it possibly greed?

    Subsistence farming in difficult climates does not require electricity/power it requires mobility to be able to follow climate bands as they move. It therefore requires political changes. People do not want refridgerators if there is nothing to put in them.

  6. With good intentions they are displacing and depriving people with the greatest unfilled need.

    So, environmentalists collaborate with industry to bring us the limited utility CFLs. Environmentalists seeking to preserve animal life, prevent indigenous people from access to land and animals used in their trade and exploited for their survival. Environmentalists addressing the hypothetical C/AGW induce energy shortages and force recovery from less hospitable locales. Environmentalists concerned about their backyard promote "green" energy technologies in another man's backyard, while recovery and processing of resources causes environmental damage in far away places (e.g. China), and encourage violation of reasonable labor laws in the same places. Environmentalists protect and obfuscate extensive (tens of thousands annually) death of birds and bats, including endangered species, in order to protect the windmill industry. Environmentalists maintaining a pretense to sustainable actions, oppose consumption of one of the few renewable resources: trees. Of which a side-effect is to endanger the lives of people who choose to live in and near those congested woods and forests. Environmentalists, perhaps for reason of ignorance, phobia, or conspiracy, prevent or invent obstacles to development of nuclear process technologies, the only technology which can be reasonably isolated from the environment, and capable of acting as a primary energy source. Environmentalists promote low-density, unreliable energy technologies, which are neither renewable in the strictest sense, and which occupy inordinate tracts of land.

    Whatever happened to reason and reasonable? It seems "good intentions" are the proximate cause for much of the world's pain.

    I observe fingerprints in this nonsense from both sides of the political isle, but principally from the left or centralization-minded individuals and cooperatives.

    Perhaps their solution in preventing or retarding development is an alternative to the eugenics (i.e. involuntary) movement, or its follow-on "reproductive rights" (i.e. voluntary) movement, both of which are losing favor in the developed world, and are challenging to impose or enforce in the developing world.

    While treating symptoms is profitable in perpetuity, ignoring causes ensures there will be no positive progress. I wonder what their real goals are.

  7. There should be no surprise here. Before climate change became an issue, the same people wanted third world subsistence farmers kept as subsistence farmers - they just wanted their subsistence to be ever so slightly better. After all, if their land was bought up by wealthy men to be farmed large-scale (like in the United States, Europe, Australia, etc) then they'd move to the city and become boring proletariat. The classic example being free trade coffee, which gives micro-scale coffee farmers pennies more per year, but keeps them far away from any lives like the ones we lead. The third world is considered a zoo by the Greens, with exotic creatures in it. It's a National Geographic view of the world that the Green left wants frozen in place.

  8. It's worse then just limiting CO2

    Appendix B - prohibitions include 'large hydro projects' and 'nuclear reactors'.


    Not to worry ...the Chinese are building the Ethiopian's a nice big $2 billion hydro dam

    "Africa’s Friend China Finances $9.3 Billion of Hydropower" - http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-09-09/africa-s-new-friend-china-finances-9-3-billion-of-hydropower.html

  9. "... but also morally dubious. "
    Rather, our policy is robustly moral. Starve and freeze others, as we divert foodstock to fuel our cars: we are in tune, we exercise morality.
    Ethics, though, demand we feed the hungry, not follow a self-congratulating herd.
    Un-ethical, inhumane, barbarous: this is our behaviour.
    Mark B says,
    "... which gives micro-scale coffee farmers pennies more per year,.."
    Friends in the los Santos coffee region of Costa Rica [Monterrey Aserri] received recognition and cash - Starbucks honored 'traditional' methods. Seventy years in the same rut, and the award buys a new washing machine.

  10. Harrywr2:

    The Chinese are investing with an expectation for a return. The Western nations are providing a subsistence living without an expectation for a return? In our rush to prove our enlightenment, we seem to have bypassed reality, despite still being constrained by its order.

    Well, good for the Chinese, and, apparently, Ethiopians. I hope they fare better in identifying a reasonable compromise. The West seems to have been captured by fanatics.

  11. #5 - thefordprefect

    Shhh! Don't disturb the narrative. Hippies are responsible for all that's bad. Fossil fuels are responsible for all that is good.

    (For anyone not looking for facile narratives, I recommend:


  12. 10 n.n

    The Chinese are investing with an expectation for a return.

    Yes, there appears to be some 'unexploited' natural gas in Ethiopia that the Chinese are interested in;)

    A substantial portion of Chinese homes are heated with coal...converting to gas would be a substantial improvement to the environment as well as the health of Chinese citizens.

    Sometimes the 'eco-concerned' lose site of the fact that the main reason to be 'eco-concerned' is the health and welfare of the people.

  13. --11 Joshua--

    OK, "Development as Freedom." Now, I'm not a development economist, but I've always understood the focus on income to be a pretty good proxy for poverty.

    I agree that those other freedoms mentioned are important, but I don't see how that means that we shouldn't focus on income, which seems like it would be particularly correlated with "economic facilities," and certainly can help a lot with "protective security" and "social opportunities." Either there's a lot more to this, or it's an attempt to make poor people feel better about not having high incomes.

    Anyways, your post seems more like an off topic attempt to derail the discussion than a non-facile narrative.

  14. I agree with your main point (and that of Todd Moss), but you defeat yourselves by foolishly, slavishly echoing the standard anti-Western, anti-industrial, anti-capitalist bunk:
    "Even if global carbon emissions are worrisome, ..." -- No, they aren't. They're miniscule and irrelevant.
    "While climate change is a very real concern, ..." -- No, it isn't. It's the biggest scientific scam ever perpetrated, and it's already been repeatedly exposed as dishonest and disingenuous, and embarrassingly defeated by widely available facts and clearly articulated, devastating counter arguments.

    A mutual friend replies: "Alan, I wouldn't speak of Pielke as 'slavishly echoing' anything. I don't think that is a fair reading of his words. Personally, I'm not at all confident that it is anthropogenic, or very much so, but climates do change. Regardless, your reading of Pielke is not nearly as sensitive as is his reading of data, policies, and critical concerns."

    Sorry, dear brother. I hate to antagonize a sympathetic fellow traveler, but I can't nearly agree. You don't beat pernicious, radical leftist misanthropes by quibbling arguments over details at the margins. The Republican Party has been doing that for generations and it's gotten us exactly where?
    A: Exactly where the leftists want us, that's where.

    I don't know you or Moss, and perhaps you're generally stalwart champions of truth, but you're quibbling here, and such pussy-footing with radical leftists gets us nowhere we want to go. Yes, climates do change, and apparently we're currently at or near the end of a period of modest global warming (a good thing for humans), which will unfortunately almost certainly be followed by global cooling (a bad thing for humans, especially in the third world).

    If you or Moss are unclear about the falseness, dishonesty and nefariousness of the global warming scam, you need to read up and wise up. If you know it's a scam, but you're unwilling to lay the axe at the root, you're just slowly surrendering civilization to the Marxists. As for me, I've done my homework, I've seen this as the scam it is from the very beginning, and I'm well past being 'sensitive' about it.

    My latest mini-collection of comments and links on the subject: https://www.facebook.com/alankhunt/posts/120633111430982

  15. 13 - MattL -

    I have no reason or desire to "derail" anyone's discussion. And I have no reason to believe that even if I did, I would be effective in doing so by posting a comment such as that I posted. You are overestimating both my view of the importance of this discussion and of my own ability to affect that discussion.

    As for my point (related to that of "thefordprefect"), I believe it basically invalid to try to distinguish the impact of increased access to energy on poverty alleviation from increased freedom. I agree with Sen's perspecdtive - that "political freedoms, economic facilities, social opportunities, transparency guarantees, and protective security" are in any real sense inextricable from one another. Certainly, say, the relationship between political freedom and access to energy, w/r/t direction of causality and impact on poverty alleviation, is not well served by facile analysis (such as analysis that greater access to energy comes without development in those other areas, or would in itself be sufficient to alleviate poverty). When I see simple causality asserted or even implied, it suggests to me that someone is probably pursuing an agenda.

    It seems that this comment:

    ==]] but I don't see how that means that we shouldn't focus on income, which seems like it would be particularly correlated with "economic facilities," and certainly can help a lot with "protective security" and "social opportunities." [[==

    missed the point. And this comment:

    ==]] Either there's a lot more to this, or it's an attempt to make poor people feel better about not having high incomes. [[==

    suggests that you made no attempt to read Sen's perspective with any seriousness and that you failed to even do a cursory investigation of the body of his work.

  16. ==]] You don't beat pernicious, radical leftist misanthropes by quibbling arguments over details at the margins. [[==

    Ya' just gotta love "skeptics."

  17. Harrywr2:

    The activists need to recognize that neither the environment nor plants nor animals are the priority, other than people have a symbiotic relation with each of them.

    The biggest problem, however, is fraud. It's difficult enough to distinguish between cause and effect, without also having to compensate for misrepresentation.

    The general issue is distortion in politics, economics, and society, which make it difficult, if not impossible, to assess and manage risk with any degree of certainty.

  18. re: fraud

    This becomes an unmanageable problem when committed by individuals or cooperatives with an earned or unearned credibility. In the past, it was a real problem with religious institutions. Today, it is a real problem with secular enterprises. It is always a problem with government, which controls through either a granted or coerced authority (i.e. through monopoly or monopolistic practices).

  19. -15 Joshua-

    Your response makes it seem like you didn't read my perspective with any seriousness. I admit to not reading beyond your link, but to be fair, you gave no reason to think that it would counter anything about any narrative, facile or no, regarding access to energy.

  20. - 19 - MattL

    ==]] I agree that those other freedoms mentioned are important, but I don't see how that means that we shouldn't focus on income,, which seems like it would be particularly correlated with "economic facilities," and certainly can help a lot with "protective security" and "social opportunities." [[==

    No one suggested that there wouldn't be a correlation (the point would be to discuss what factors lead to increased income as well as how it is correlated with freedom). No one suggested that income isn't important. No one suggested that the importance of those "other" freedoms would imply that we shouldn't consider income. And why did you say "other freedoms?" Are you suggesting that income is a freedom?

    My point is that "access to electricity" is based on from far more than only climate policy - and suggesting that there is a directly causal relationship leaves out many important related variables.

    Those are the reasons why your response seemed un-serious - well that, plus the suggestion that I'm posting a comment to "derail" anyone's discussion.

  21. -20 Joshua-

    This post of yours makes a lot more sense than your original post, especially since the on topic portion of it is not a simple troll. Perhaps that's not what you meant, but I say it was a fair interpretation.

    That access to electricity is based entirely on climate policy is your own straw man. If you have an argument to counter the fact that climate policy is driving at least one access of US policy with respect to foreign aid/investment and access to energy, then you should stop with the straw men and irrelevant arguments and just tell us.

    I wouldn't classify income as a freedom per se, but its absence is usually a pretty good indicator of the lack of freedom. Sorry, but your original post was so terse, I read the link and drew my conclusions.