Can Ecomodernism Contribute to the “Rise of the Rest”?

Poor Countries Need Modern Energy for Development

The poor will need to increase their consumption of modern energy if the world’s nations are to ensure more equitable human development, said a panel of energy and development experts at the fifth annual Breakthrough Dialogue. To achieve this, the international community will need to think beyond providing the poor with access to household-scale electricity or placing other restrictions on energy consumption in the name of climate mitigation.

Moderated by Breakthrough Institute Senior Advisor Peter Teague, the panel raised questions about the feasibility and morality of such restrictions, and the ultimate goals of international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank, which aim to provide household electrification largely through small-scale renewable sources, such as solar panels and other off-grid technologies.

While Asia is currently home to the majority of people without access to electricity, “sub-Saharan Africa is the only region where the absolute number of people without access to modern energy is set to rise,” according to John Asafu-Adjaye from the University of Queensland.

Teague opened the discussion by debunking romantic notions of what he described as the ‘wood economy.’ The wood economy, he explained, comprises the 2.5 to 3 billion people who derive all their energy from biomass.

He detailed the labor-intensive activities that adversely affect human health and well-being, the high mortality rates associated with wood smoke and indoor air pollution, and the difficulty in overcoming the poverty threshold.

Four out of five people in Africa rely on biomass, and 600,000 die annually from wood smoke inhalation, according to Asafu-Adjaye.

The good news, Teague contended, is that historic trends are moving in the right direction; hundreds of millions of people are moving out of the wood economy and up the development ladder, and many economies are decarbonizing, producing more wealth with fewer greenhouse gas emissions. The goal, he argued, was to find ways to accelerate those trends.

This is unlikely to transpire through the popular concept of “leapfrogging” –– wherein developing nations bypass poor governance and the rungs of the energy ladder, straight to renewable sources of energy provided by for-profit companies.

“It takes industrialization, urbanization, and agricultural modernization to achieve development. Government investment and regulation are key ingredients of each of these processes. We won’t leapfrog from subsistence farming to complex modern economies by relying on expensive, intermittent off-grid power sources or other market-driven solutions,” Teague said.

Asafu-Adjaye illustrated the enormous inequalities in electricity consumption between developed and developing nations, questioning the legitimacy of placing the burden of climate mitigation on sub-Saharan Africa.

“It takes 961 days for an average Ethiopian to consume 150-kilowatt hours, while it takes an average American only four days,” he said.

Joyashree Roy, a professor of economics at Jadavpur University, used India as an example to illustrate the perils of implementing short-term programs, such as cookstove and water access projects that do not have long-term, large-scale development goals. Such projects distract from the ultimate goal of modern economies with grid connectivity, and fail to address deeper, more persistent issues related to poverty.

Clean Air Task Force Executive Director Armond Cohen suggested that framing centralization as an end-goal would be a major step in global energy discourse.

Roy emphasized the importance of international discussions, adding that developing countries are concerned with their global image and thus, pay attention. International bodies and debates play a significant role in determining the energy structures of developing economies.

Esteban Rossi, professor at Javeriana University, advocated for ecomodernism to direct the discussion beyond climate change in order to allow Western discourse to focus on clean, affordable energy for all.

Others, including Breakthrough’s Jessica Lovering, argued that countries such as Bangladesh are likely to consider nuclear and other technologies that are often absent from the international development discourse. These countries, consequently, will look to willing partners, such as Russia and China, which tend to act independently of the Western-dominated development community.

There was a consensus that policy makers will benefit from exposure to a broader range of ideas about energy and development than is often allowed for by international aid institutions. For example, Cohen stressed that “opening up the discourse to allow for countries to decide themselves on centralization or decentralization” is an important aim for a high-energy planet.