Twelve step programme to poverty
IPN Opinion article
The Daily Times (Malawi)
World Environment Day offers the poor a tempting formula: developing countries must slow economic growth to avoid becoming eco-vampires like the industrialized economies. We Africans should be content to live quaintly in our mud huts lit by solar and wind power.
The hot air being emitted by the United Nations Environment Programme for World Environment Day uses the Alcoholics Anonymous model, offering "Twelve Steps to Help You Kick the CO2 Habit."
Point Number 1 asks us to "Make a Commitment" to achieving carbon neutrality. Maybe some in the developed world are happy to see a drop in economic activity and human well-being by tightening their belts, but this is too much to ask of the poor, anywhere -- even if carbon neutrality were possible in the first place.
The longer economic development is stifled in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, the longer people will continue to die from preventable diseases and hunger. We need to get out of poverty as fast as possible, which means some CO2 emissions in the short term.
In Step Number 2 we go from the implausible to the fantastical: "It is likely that carbon will eventually be judged as an atmospheric pollutant and regulated accordingly..." Maybe we'll get fined for breathing out the gas that plants breathe in to produce the oxygen that we breathe in.
Paradoxically, the Steps admit that progress and prosperity can help use less energy: expensive incandescent light bulbs and "laptop computers use less energy than desktop computers." These efficient things are expensive, so the poorer you are, the more polluting your activities, your cars and your factories are likely to be.
To get out of poverty you need economic development. To get economic development you need a stable economy with property rights, the rule of law and economic freedom: so why don't we focus on how we can lift everybody out of the mud of poverty? Poverty is neither quaint nor environmentally friendly, whatever eco-tourists might think.
In Step 6, Switch To Low Carbon Energy, scientific fancy is compounded by fairytale mathematics: "coal produces twice the emissions of gas, six times the amount of solar, 40 times the amount of wind and 200 times the amount from hydro." In some laboratory somewhere this may be true but, in most of the real world, wind and solar power are hugely expensive and are so unpredictable that they need to be fully backed up by conventional power, including in Ghana where we have plenty of sunshine.
And there's no mention of nuclear power - one of the safest and lowest CO2-emitting forms of energy.
Step 6 also includes the final insult to the poor: replacing petroleum fuel with bio-fuel - a massively subsidized U.S. and EU policy which has helped cause higher food prices world-wide. In the developed world, food is a lifestyle choice but for the poor it is a question of survival. Biofuels are generally more expensive than petroleum fuel in real terms (any cheaper prices in the EU or the U.S. are subsidized) and bioethanol only yields about 10 percent more energy than it takes to produce, British government figures show.
All this pressure by Western activists and vested interests adds up to extortion: it was revealed in late May that the UK's hugely publicized 800 million pound Environmental Transformation Fund to help poor countries adapt to climate change will in fact be loans, to be repaid with interest, not grants. Do what we say and pay for it too.
Ultimately it is market-driven economies, with free expression and accountable leaders, that produce cleaner technology. Look at the former Soviet Union, with Chernobyl, its poisoned lakes and foul pollution. Look at poor countries where wood and dung are burnt for heat and cooking, causing deforestation and making respiratory illness one of the world's biggest child-killers. Rich people are better placed to deal with eco-problems.
But the UK aid agency DFID recommends tricks for "Development By Dung" in its "Rough Guide to a Better World." The United Nations Development Program similarly praises dung and wood as "renewables."
People who have a stake in the success of a thing are less likely to destroy it, so property-owning people are less likely to destroy by pollution the life they enjoy. But to the poor, life is a struggle: they care little for anything but daily sustenance, much less the environment.
The environmental lobby offers slogans that blame the rich and harm the poor, instead of dealing with adaptation to whatever changes might be coming our way.
UNEP's Twelve Steps were written by rich people, for rich people. For too long, the environmental lobby has used the fate of poor people faced by climate change as a justification for opposing economic development. Not in my name.
Kofi Bentil is a lecturer at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana, a consultant in business strategy and winner of the World Bank "Ghana Development Marketplace" award for entrepreneurship.