Poor Countries Want Modern Living, and They Want It Fast

Published October 11, 2014

More than seven billion people now populate Earth, including six billion who live in developing economies. After having already quadrupled in the past century, the world’s population could reach near 9 billion by 2050, according to projections by the United Nations. Half of that growth will come from Africa, which will increase its percentage of world population from 13 to 20 percent.

With rapidly increasing populations seeking much higher standards of living, convenient and dense forms of energy will be in high demand as those countries move to industrialize their economies and catch up to the Western style of living. According to the International Energy Agency, coal was the world’s fastest-growing fossil fuel in 2013, with 88 percent of global growth taking place in China and India.

China confronted many of the same problems Africa faces today: hundreds of millions of people living in absolute poverty (subsisting on less than $1 a day) and relying on primitive, albeit renewable, sources of energy such as wood and dung. Since then, China has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty through heavy consumption of energy. An analysis from the American Enterprise Institute found for every increase of one quadrillion British Thermal Units (BTUs) consumed between 1981 and 2009, 8.2 million people were lifted out of poverty. Given China’s heavy coal use, that is the equivalent of saying for every additional 4.5 million tons of coal used in China, one million people were lifted out of poverty.

Billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates, a self-declared Democrat and financial supporter of many liberal causes, has worked with the influential author and political scientist Bjorn Lomborg to advocate for Africa to employ the same energy strategy. They hope to help Africa make the transition from burning animal dung, cardboard, and twigs for cooking and heating to generating modern electricity from cheap, abundant coal.

According to IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol, providing everyone on the planet with access to reliable electricity would increase CO2 emissions by only 0.9 percent—a truly insignificant amount. That reality makes it rather puzzling that universal electrification is not a top global priority. Instead of encouraging Africans’ efforts to climb out of poverty, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry actually discouraged Africa from creating new farmland because of concern over greenhouse gas emissions, in his recent speech at the Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, DC.

Gates and Lomborg are right to want to help Africa grow, but economic development is largely an internal affair that will have to be addressed by Africans themselves. The United States can help by removing its protectionist agricultural policies, which harm Africa’s agricultural sector. At the very least, U.S. leaders should abandon their constant pontification about reducing greenhouse gas emissions in developed and developing countries. This hectoring of poorer nations makes us look arrogant and does nothing to solve the serious problems these countries face.

[First published in The Pearland Journal.]