Energy Crisis: Hypocrisy of Western Leaders

Nov 12 , 2022
By Bjorn Lomborg

Nearly 2.5 billion people continue to suffer from indoor air pollution, burning dirty fuels like wood and dung to cook and keep warm. Solar panels do not solve that problem because they are too weak to power clean stoves and heaters. The green evangelists of the rich world tell poor countries to avoid developing fossil fuel and gas, revealing their hypocrisy, writes Bjorn Lomborg, president of the Copenhagen Consensus.

Every year, global climate summits feature a parade of hypocrisy as the world’s elite arrive on private jets to lecture humanity on cutting carbon emissions. Last week’s climate summit in Egypt offered more breathtaking hypocrisy than usual because the world’s rich zealously lectured poor countries about the dangers of fossil fuels after devouring massive amounts of new gas, coal, and oil.

Since the war in Ukraine pushed up energy prices even further, wealthy countries have been scouring the world for new energy sources. The United Kingdom (UK) vehemently denounced fossil fuels at the Glasgow climate summit last year. But, it planned to keep coal-fired plants available this winter instead of shutting almost all of them as previously agreed.

Thermal coal imports by the European Union (EU) from Australia, South Africa and Indonesia increased more than 11 folds. Meanwhile, a new trans-Saharan gas pipeline will allow Europe to tap into the gas from Niger, Algeria and Nigeria. Germany is reopening shuttered coal power plants; Italy is planning to import 40pc more gas from northern Africa; and, the United States (US) is going cap-in-hand to Saudi Arabia to grovel for more oil production.

At the climate summit in Egypt, the leaders from these countries somehow declared with straight faces that poor countries must avoid fossil fuel exploitation for fear of worsening climate change. These rich countries encouraged the world’s poorest to focus instead on green alternatives like off-grid solar and wind energy. In a widely interpreted speech about Africa, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutierrez said it would be “delusional” for countries to invest more in gas and oil exploration.

The hypocrisy is simply breathtaking. Every rich country today became wealthy thanks to the exploitation of fossil fuels. The world’s major development organizations, at the behest of wealthy countries, refuse to fund fossil fuel exploitation that poor countries could use to lift themselves out of poverty. The elite prescription for the world’s poor - green energy - is incapable of transforming lives.

That is because sun and wind power are useless when it is cloudy, night-time, or there is no wind. Off-grid solar power can provide a nice solar light but cannot even power a family’s fridge or oven, let alone provide the power that communities need to run everything from farms to factories, the ultimate engines of growth.

A study in Tanzania found almost 90pc of households given off-grid electricity want to be hooked up to the national grid to receive fossil fuel access. The first rigorous test published on the impact of solar panels on the lives of poor people found they got a little bit more electricity - the ability to power a lamp during the day - but no measurable impact on their lives: they did not increase savings or spending, did not work more or start more businesses, and their children did not study more.

Solar panels and wind turbines are useless at tackling one of the main energy problems of the world’s poor. Nearly 2.5 billion people continue to suffer from indoor air pollution, burning dirty fuels like wood and dung to cook and keep warm. Solar panels do not solve that problem because they are too weak to power clean stoves and heaters.

In contrast, grid electrification - which nearly everywhere means mostly fossil fuels - has significant positive impacts on household income, expenditure, and education. A study in Bangladesh showed that electrified households experienced a 21pc average jump in income and a 1.5pc reduction in poverty every year.

The biggest swindle is that rich world leaders have somehow portrayed themselves as green evangelists. At the same time, more than three-quarters of their enormous primary energy production comes from fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Less than 12pc of their energy comes from renewables, mostly wood and hydro. Just 2.4pc is solar and wind.

Compare this to Africa, the most renewable continent in the world, with half of its energy produced by renewables. But these renewables are almost entirely wood, straws, and dung, which is a testament to how little energy the continent has access to. Despite all the hype, the continent gets 0.3pc of its energy from solar and wind.

To solve global warming, rich countries must invest much more in research and development on better green technologies, from fusion, fission and second-generation biofuels to solar and wind with massive batteries. The crucial insight is to innovate their actual cost down below fossil fuels. That way, everyone will eventually switch. But telling the world’s poor to live with unreliable, expensive, weak power is an insult.

There is already pushback from the world’s developing countries, which see the hypocrisy for what it is: Egypt’s Finance Minister recently said that poor countries must not be “punished” and warned that climate policy should not add to their suffering. That warning needs to be listened to.

Europe is scouring the world for more fossil fuels because the continent needs them for its growth and prosperity. That same opportunity should not be withheld from the world’s poorest.

PUBLISHED ON Nov 12,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1176]

Bjorn Lomborg is President of the Copenhagen Consensus and Visiting Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. His new book is "Best Things First", which The Economist named one of the best books of 2023.

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