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Anti-Energy Activists Don't Want to Talk About Energy Poverty

07/30/2014 07:22 EDT | Updated 09/29/2014 05:59 EDT

Two interesting articles were published recently discussing energy poverty in developing countries, and different ideas about what should be done to alleviate it.

In High Energy Africa, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Schellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute discuss the lessons learned from a recent conference on "Human Needs and Environmental Protection in the 21st Century." Much of this comes as no surprise -- I've written about energy poverty before -- but some of what the Breakthrough boys write about puts energy poverty into context:

"Lack of power means so many things," said Mimi Alemayehou, formerly of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. "It means women giving birth in the dark, children who either cannot study at night or don't go to school, and business that cannot function. Nigeria loses about two per cent of GDP each year due to power outages."

Development expert John Asafu-Adjaye of the University of Queensland points out that the biggest constraint on alleviating poverty in Africa is a lack of access to energy:

"When you look at electricity consumption across the globe, the consumption of the average person in sub-Saharan Africa is about 530 kWh per year, which is far below the average of 1,500 kWhr per person for developing countries," said Asafu-Adjaye. "For Africa to catch up, we have to greatly increase electricity consumption, and this will have to come from cheap energy sources."

And those cheap sources are not likely to be renewables:

Given their high cost and a lack of infrastructure to support them, at least in the near-term, renewable technologies like solar will not be able to power Africa, argued Asafu-Adjaye. Renewables may become useful in the medium-term but only once significant investment is directed toward new power plants and rehabilitating old ones.

"Renewables cannot do the heavy lifting," he said. "We need to invest in the power grid in order to power industries, modernize agriculture, and power schools and hospitals. Going forward, sub-Saharan Africa needs to exploit cheap sources of energy, and this could come from oil and coal."

What is the response from the environmental community? Doug Norlan of Friends of the Earth apparently thinks it is okay to hold African prosperity hostage to their agenda:

"If we're going to target energy access to the poor, then we need to have much clearer goals and criteria and rule out the projects that don't achieve the objectives we seek."

Note the big "if" there. Not when, not how, but "if we're going to target energy access to the poor."

The second article is about a rather different approach being taken by the Japanese government.

Japan said Wednesday it would step up support for coal-fired power plants in developing nations, challenging a U.S. policy that seeks to discourage such plants in an effort to fight global warming.

"Without public loans and insurance from rich countries, emerging countries would turn to less costly, inefficient technologies. It could aggravate the CO2 emission issue," said Takafumi Kakudo, coal director at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry.

The Japanese position is at odds with that of the United States, as well as other countries that seem content to let large swaths of the world's population live out their lives in darkness:

Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden joined the U.S. in the autumn of 2013. They said at the time that they would be "promoting energy efficiency and clean energy, including renewables," while ending public financing for new coal-fired power plants overseas because of the risk of climate change.

How does this apply to Canada, you ask? Simple: Canada has massive energy reserves that could play a part in alleviating energy poverty. Canada has one per cent of the world's coal resources. Canada has the second largest oil reserves in the world, exceeded by only Saudi Arabia. Canada also holds the fifth largest shale gas reserves in the world. And all of those resources could enter the world market, increasing and stabilizing supply, lowering costs, and improving lives both at home and abroad.

But there's another "if," which is "if anti-energy activists will let it get to market." Opposition to all forms of energy transport and trade is fierce in Canada, with campaigns aimed at blocking pipelines, mining, hydraulic fracturing, rail transport, tanker transport...the list is seemingly endless. And uncertainty around energy production and trade was strengthened recently, by the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada expanding land rights to Canada's First Nations people.

ENGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth like to frame the energy-discussion as if it only has a few very simple dimensions. Theirs is a very simple narrative of environmental protection versus corporate profits. What they don't want to discuss is the reality that right now 2.5 billion human beings are living impoverished lives because they have insufficient access to energy, and that getting them the energy they need requires the fossil fuels the ENGOs are determined to keep in the ground. "Keep the tar sands in the ground," says environmental crusader Bill McKibben. "Say no to fossil fuel exports," pleads Stop Coal. Export natural gas? "Over my dead body," says an anti-gas British Columbian activist.

Canadians like to pride themselves on their humanitarianism. Canada is, in fact, a global leader in humanitarian actions. But it's hard to see that humanitarianism in Canada's growing antipathy to energy production and trade.

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