Our Approach to Fossil Fuels for the Poor is Upside Down

Here’s how to fix it.

Our Approach to Fossil Fuels for the Poor is Upside Down

Imagine if we tackled greenhouse gas emissions from transportation by banning buses in poor neighborhoods while subsidizing private jets for the rich.That would be upside down. It would be deeply unjust. And it couldn’t possibly succeed. It sounds like such a bad approach, in fact, that it is hard to imagine anyone advocating it.

That upside down strategy is exactly what rich countries are doing today.

The United States and many European nations are doubling down on oil and gas while also pledging not to fund energy projects in poor countries if those projects run on fossil fuels.

These actions aren’t just hypocritical. They will entrench poverty, do little to reduce carbon emissions, and—here’s the crazy part—this approach will actually slow down the adoption of clean energy.

So how can the United States, the European Union, and others be smarter about ending poverty and addressing climate change?

First: Governments of poor countries must be empowered to pursue a range of energy sources.

Renewables will be the lion’s share, but there will be some fossil fuels in the mix. Natural gas, for example, is abundantly available in Africa. Gas can fuel power plants, but is also one of the best feedstocks to produce fertilizer. And gas is a far cleaner cooking fuel than wood or charcoal, which is the default fuel for the vast majority of poor people in Africa and Asia.

Second: Investments in renewables can be paired with natural gas to increase the share of low-carbon energy sources in poor countries.

Renewables are getting cheaper and better every year. But they cannot solve energy poverty by themselves. I know this sounds backwards, but gas actually helps put more solar and wind into a power system. That’s because gas ramps up quickly and cheaply, so it pairs well with intermittent energy sources. Until batteries are really affordable at scale, gas will be the best way to build a reliable high-renewables system.

Let’s not impose unnecessary and unjust restrictions on those who are least responsible for climate change. Let’s flip our upside-down approach. Let’s give poor countries–and our climate policy–a chance to succeed.

TED Talk: Why Our Approach to Fossil Fuels for the Poor is Upside Down – Vijaya Ramachandran
Video: Courtesy TED

These comments are excerpted from Vijaya Ramachandran's talk in the TED Countdown conference series, recorded at the Barbican Centre for the Performing Arts in London in October 2022. The conference was centered around the topic: How do we get the world off fossil fuels quickly and fairly? You can watch the full talk here.

This post was also published by the Center for Global Development.