There is a consensus across the developed world that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can and should be reduced.
However, despite the best of intentions, the strategies outlined to reduce emissions within the developed world are often not viable – economically, practically or politically.
While developed countries in the West are the most responsible for climate change, representing only one-fifth of the world’s total population, many emerging nations are just now starting to reach the point where their economies are demanding access to significant sources of power and are growing at a much faster rate than the developed world.
Despite the increase in influence and importance from these areas of the world, the West is driving the discussion on energy policy and climate change, which only approaches production and development from a one-sided narrative. From a non-western perspective, it could be viewed as myopic or even arrogant for the West to dictate energy and emissions solutions for the rests of the world, not to mention to poorer countries looking to add power and increase quality of life. In other circles, people are questioning whether climate change is even occurring. Yes, it is. Climate change is real.
So, what is the solution?
To date, the imperative for climate change action has largely been framed through a moral lens, with climate change as the only ethical consideration, i.e., we must “save the planet.” This narrow statement has limited the conversation and given way to one-sided conversations on energy and energy development. The problem with this is, if we limit the definition of our energy challenges, we limit our ability to meet those challenges. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach.
In the West, many people assume that renewable energy alone is the answer. While it’s true that an increase in wind and solar are helping to reduce emissions worldwide, for many developing economies like China and India and even less developed countries like those in Sub-Saharan Africa, a jump from coal to renewables is simply not possible.
With growing populations, for example, the burgeoning middle class in Asia is demanding more energy. These countries will need access to additional sources of fuel that can not only meet this growing demand but reduced air emissions, too. Without access to cleaner-burning fuels, these countries will continue to use any means necessary to provide energy access to their citizens and slow the progress being made in Western countries to limit climate change.
Case in point: India and China are poised to increase opportunities for economic development, giving way to a bigger demand for energy. To quote the International Energy Agency: “Three major shifts will shape the evolution of global natural gas markets in the next five years – growing imports from China, greater industrial demand and rising production from the United States.” China, India, sub-Saharan Africa and many other developing countries will be relying on American-produced natural gas. In many cases, this gas will displace the need for fuels like coal, wood and animal waste, which are more carbon intensive than natural gas.
While natural gas in the United States was in short supply just 10 years ago, it is now an abundant source of energy thanks to the U.S. shale revolution, which has been an absolute lynchpin to reducing GHG emissions here and around the world. Yet, in the West, we’re not acknowledging the benefits of energy like gas and its pivotal role in emissions reductions.
Natural gas needs to be a central tenet to any real conversation on climate change, especially as organizations are actively working to enhance the lives of their citizens and address issues like climate change. One of these organizations is called the Organization for Economic Co-operation (OECD), which is focused on “stimulating economic progress and world trade.” The group even released a report on green growth strategies.
Having these conversations is a must, but each of their members all has very similar societal makeups, and all its member countries are high-income economies. While the concerns of these member countries are addressing the needs of their citizens, they do not take into account the limitations of the developing world. For groups like the OECD and others in the United States and Europe, the perceived status quo is not always the actual status quo.
As of 2011, OECD countries comprised approximately 1.2 billion of a total world population of 6.9 billion. By 2020, the OECD population is supposed to grow to 1.3 billion while the world population is expected to reach 7.8 billion. In 2060, the OECD population is expected to reach nearly 1.4 billion people; the world population is expected to reach 9.3 billion.
If you do the math, the OECD is expected to account for 15 percent of the world’s population. While I’m sure it addresses the needs of their citizens, it doesn’t account for real conversations that account for the other 85 percent of the population that is grappling with other existential concerns for their citizens.
For example, for many countries in the West, Germany became the template for our energy future. On its head, Germany is an economic powerhouse with a per capita income of roughly $50,400, approximately five times higher than the median per capita income worldwide. It also has a strong political will to reduce its consumption of fossil fuels and nuclear power.
Unlike other countries, Germany is also one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, and its infrastructure is the envy of most countries. In many respects, Germany is in the perfect situation to ramp up renewable production to meet its GHG reduction goals through its “Energiewende” program.
Even with all its accolades, Germany will almost certainly not meet its Paris emissions goals in 2020 as, ironically, it is home to six of the 10 worst polluting coal plants on the European continent, fueled by strip mining the Hambach forest. Additionally, their residential consumers pay some of the highest energy prices in the world, approximately 33 cents per kilowatt-hour.
The West has come up with its response to climate change, and its solution has not been sufficient to meet even its own goals. For these countries, their solution must be more inclusive to a broader array of energy sources including natural gas and nuclear. It must also take the input and limitations of less developed countries more seriously.
If the West is truly serious about climate change, it is time to adjust the narrative on energy solutions if we want to reduce GHG emissions.
Ryan Scott is Vice President at HBW Resources. He previously worked at Deloitte & Touche’s Strategy & Operations Consulting practice.
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