Nuclear Energy is Climate Justice

This month, the Trump Administration proposed lifting a longtime ban on financing the construction of nuclear power plants in developing countries. The proposal would allow the Development Finance Corporation (DFC), the United States’ new development bank, to fund advanced nuclear power in my home country of Liberia, among other emerging economies in sub-Saharan Africa and around the world.

Some development and environmental groups have come out against the proposed policy shift. It is "utterly irresponsible for the Trump administration to promote the export of unproven and potentially dangerous nuclear technologies to the developing world,” Ed Lyman of the Union of Concerned Scientists told Reuters. According to Kate DeAngelis of Friends of the Earth, “Mini and off grid renewables would provide access to electricity in the countries that DFC should be helping — low and lower middle income countries — much faster and more affordably.”

This shift at DFC would swim against the current of reforms other international development agencies have made in recent years, which have tended towards restrictions on energy project financing outside a narrow set of renewable and off-grid technologies. Historically, the DFC’s predecessor agency and its peers have had partial or strict restrictions on financing coal, oil, natural gas, hydroelectric, and nuclear projects. Just this month, the UK government announced plans to phase out its support of all oil and natural gas projects.

Such restrictions are often enacted in the name of climate justice. The effect, though, is often the opposite of justice. Despite the trivial share of global emissions sub-Saharan Africans are responsible for, restrictions are placed upon their energy infrastructure by wealthier countries who place no such limitations on their own.

There is a romantic hope — and it is nothing more than hope — that Africa’s relative lack of legacy infrastructure makes it the perfect canvas on which to paint a green energy future. And while these aspirations are well-intentioned, real human lives and livelihoods are at stake. There can be no prosperity in a region wracked by extreme energy poverty. And putting restrictions on the energy choices of the people who need it the most is deeply unethical. Climate policy that ignores the injustice of an energy-poor Africa has no legitimacy.

The notion that, while lacking legacy energy infrastructure, Africa can build a 21st century energy system on variable renewables alone, is a fantasy with no historical precedent. These unrealistic constraints amount to climate injustice.

In many ways, the global campaign against climate change is being waged at the expense of those least responsible for it and worst affected by it. The poorest 52 countries have contributed just 1 percent of cumulative CO2 emissions. Even if these countries grow rapidly, they will not make any meaningful difference in the path of climate change. The greatest sacrifices in the fight against climate change are being involuntarily extracted from African people: the imposition of policies that extend Africans’ poverty is the price they are being asked to pay to curb climate change.

The hypocrisy is especially stark in the case of nuclear energy. Nuclear power plants generate clean, reliable electricity in 30 countries around the world, with a further 28 countries actively pursuing this option. Nations like India, China, and South Korea have used nuclear energy to build modern, high-energy economies. And nuclear energy produces zero greenhouse emissions, eliminating the tradeoff between development and increased emissions posed by coal, oil, and gas projects. Obstacles to the financing of nuclear power in emerging economies work to prevent countries like my own from industrializing our economies and building climate-resilient infrastructure. This is especially bad timing as the next generation of nuclear technologies, including small modular reactors and microreactors, are especially suitable to emerging markets. Such restrictions are an example of climate injustice, not a reaction against it.

The availability of cheap, reliable energy is a necessary component to improving quality of life, job creation, and increasing productivity in Africa. It is unrealistic to expect economic growth or rising incomes without adequately addressing energy poverty. Africa has a total installed electric capacity of around 150 gigawatts, “a level comparable to the capacity China installs in one or two years.” By 2040, the continent’s electricity demand could more than triple.

Africa’s long-term quest for cheap, affordable energy, however, is stymied by myriad issues from lack of investment to governance and regulation. These drawbacks give foreign donors and development finance institutions an outsized influence, both in guiding energy governance and providing financing.

Blanket bans on specific energy technologies assume an equal baseline for all economies. They equate Africa with Asia, Europe, and North America in both energy infrastructure endowment and an ability to pivot to renewable sources. The notion that, while lacking legacy energy infrastructure, Africa can build a 21st century energy system on variable renewables alone, is a fantasy with no historical precedent. These unrealistic constraints amount to climate injustice.

Western institutions are at great risk of ceding influence over the future of African energy policy.

To compound this injustice, most industrialized nations and their middle-income counterparts continue to power their economies with the same energy sources they have sought to ban in poorer countries. Australia has fast-tracked a giant coal project in Queensland because it would “help to get new jobs happening quicker.” Germany has indicated that it too will pivot from fossil fuels … in another 18 years. France relies on nuclear power for three-quarters of its electricity. These and other nations are, effectively, pulling up the ladder behind them.

Rich nations have significant leverage over the development trajectory of emerging economies because of their control of multilateral development banks like the World Bank and bilateral agencies like the DFC. These institutions should modernize their policies to remove restrictions on countries that fall below certain per-capita GDP and energy consumption thresholds. For all countries, they should provide financing for advanced nuclear energy.

Many governments, especially in Africa, turn to the World Bank and other agencies not only for financing, but also for sound advice. The Bank’s inability to provide any guidance to governments considering nuclear power as an option borders on dereliction. In this vacuum, African governments will justifiably seek other partners, such as Russia, which is aggressively marketing its nuclear models. China will also soon begin to offer its own options, backed by cheap financing. Western institutions are at great risk of ceding influence over the future of African energy policy.

As my colleagues Todd Moss and Jessica Lovering wrote for the Center for Global Development, “removing the outdated ban [on financing nuclear projects] would be good for the United States, good for Africa and other energy-hungry regions, and good for the planet.” As they observe, a new generation of advanced nuclear reactor technologies are poised to speed development and energy modernization in sub-Saharan Africa. Shifts like the Trump Administration’s DFC policy change would accelerate that process, especially if it augers similar trends at other development finance institutions. In the name of climate justice, we should welcome this proposal.