Many developing countries are turning to coal and other low-cost fossil fuels to generate the electricity they need for powering homes, industry, and agriculture. Some people in rich countries are telling them to cut back on fossil fuels. I understand the concern: After all, human beings are causing our climate to change, and our use of fossil fuels is a huge reason.
But even as we push to get serious about confronting climate change, we should not try to solve the problem on the backs of the poor. For one thing, poor countries represent a small part of the carbon-emissions problem. And they desperately need cheap sources of energy now to fuel the economic growth that lifts families out of poverty. They can’t afford today’s expensive clean energy solutions, and we can’t expect them wait for the technology to get cheaper.
Instead of putting constraints on poor countries that will hold back their ability to fight poverty, we should be investing dramatically more money in R&D to make fossil fuels cleaner and make clean energy cheaper than any fossil fuel.
These two videos featuring the Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg illustrate the connection between energy and poverty. Bjorn created the Copenhagen Consensus meetings, which bring together prominent economists to rank solutions to global challenges. I certainly don’t agree with Bjorn (or the Copenhagen Consensus) on everything, but I always find him worth listening to. He’s not an ideologue. He’s a data-driven guy who cares about using scarce resources in the smartest possible way.
In this video, Bjorn demonstrates how big the energy gap is between rich and poor countries, argues that simply telling poor countries to “get wind turbines and solar panels” is hollow and hypocritical, and calls for making clean energy “so cheap that everyone … will want to buy it.”
In this video, Bjorn argues that before poor countries can move to clean energy, poor families need access to cheap electricity so they don’t have to burn dung, cardboard, or twigs for heating and cooking. These dirty fuels produce indoor air pollution that is terrible for health (especially for children).