Should developing countries starve to stop climate change?

President Obama has won reelection, and he FINALLY mentioned human-caused climate change in his acceptance speech.  “We want our children to live in an America that isn’t… threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”  Apparently it took New York City underwater — hot on the heels of the warmest summer in US history, a summer so hot that it destroyed nearly the entire US corn crop — to reawaken Americans to the dangers of messing with Mother Nature.

But as devastating as those disasters were, let’s not forget that most of the humans alive today live in developing countries.  These countries will produce most of the next century’s growth in greenhouse gases, and they will feel the impacts of climate change most acutely.

In that regard, I received this question from a friend:

I always read your posts about climate change, because I am in some ways undecided on it. Related to that, I have a question that you are uniquely qualified to answer: should developing countries (like Uganda, for example), be required to slow down their economic growth on account of global warming?

Good question.  First of all, let me just say that a visit to any developing country will reveal that climate change is, if nothing else, real.  Any Ugandan farmer will tell you that the seasons don’t behave like they used to.  It rains during dry season, and rainy season does not start when it’s supposed to.  It’s hotter than it used to be, the glaciers atop the Rwenzori Mountains are retreating, and things have generally become more unpredictable.

And there is no question this is caused by human emissions of greenhouse gases.  We know that CO2 traps heat – this is easily measured in a laboratory.  And we know that humans are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels; in fact, the measured increase in CO2 matches exactly the amount predicted by adding up all the fossil fuels burned over the last 150 years.  So all else being equal, the temperature of the planet MUST increase.  And indeed, NASA has confirmed that there is less heat escaping into space at the exact spectrum of CO2, and temperatures have steadily increased for the last 100 years.

So whether you ask a NASA scientist or Ugandan matooke farmer, the evidence is not just overwhelming, it’s undeniable that the planet is heating up, and human fossil fuel emissions are responsible.

But the real question is, what do we do about it?  Conventional wisdom is that reducing greenhouse gases reduces economic growth.  We can survive reduced growth in rich countries, but what about countries that are already so poor they can barley feed and medicate themselves?  Should they be required to slow their development to forestall climate change?

And the answer is… well, actually, you don’t have to choose.  The tradeoff between protecting the environment and economic growth is in reality a false choice, for two reasons.  First, climate change itself will devastate developing economies, canceling out at least some of the economic benefit of fossil fuel led development.  And second, economic development does not depend on fossil fuels the way it used to; just like developing countries do not rely on landlines for their telecom needs, they will not need fossil fuels to power their broader economic growth. For these reasons, reducing global warming pollution does not mean reducing poor countries’ development.  Quite the opposite: their economies in fact depend on finding sources of energy that don’t contribute to global warming.

Developing countries are the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change because their largely agricultural populations are most closely tied to the climate.  Small changes in rainfall patterns mean subsistence farmers can’t predict when to plant and when to harvest – and any farmer will tell you that “rainy season don’t come when it used to.”  Moreover, as the climate warms, more water evaporates, causing dry season to get drier and wet season to get wetter – and indeed, heavier rains are contributing to more frequent landslides and flooding here in Uganda, which can wipe out entire villages.  In agricultural economies, such climatic shifts can ruin farmers’ livelihoods.

Landslide in Bududa, Uganda

But the impacts in Uganda pale in comparison to what could happen in South Asia.  1.5 billion people there depend on Himalayan glaciers for their water supply: everything from drinking water to irrigation to hydropower.  And global warming is melting those glaciers at an accelerating pace, according to CIA-funded research.

Now why would the CIA care about climate change?  Because the two countries hosting those 1.5 billion people are nuclear-armed India and Pakistan.  What happens when the glacier-fed rivers dry up and it comes time to “allocate” scarce water resources between rival nations?  You can connect the dots.

Drought, floods, famines, water-shortages, nuclear war — whatever economic harm developing countries might suffer from STOPPING climate change PALES in comparison to the consequences of NOT stopping it.  It is the great issue facing the developing world.  What an injustice that the countries least responsible for causing climate change will be the ones to suffer the most from it (although Hurricane Sandy may cause us to rethink that).

So we’ve established that even if reducing greenhouse gases might slow short term economic growth, there are also huge long term economic benefits in terms of better agriculture, better water supplies, and reduced risk of war.

But the good news is that reducing carbon emissions does not have to reduce developing countries’ growth.  Instead, it can boost the economies of these nations: by replacing iron-age technologies that fail both their users and the environment with modern clean energy solutions.

For one thing, sub-Saharan African countries (excluding South Africa) generate much of their power from hydro, which means that their energy needs are less tied to fossil fuels than countries like the United States.  In fact, the UN estimates that one day, hydro could meet ALL of Africa’s electricity needs.

But developing nations have other energy resources: most are tropical, and thus well-endowed with sunshine, meaning solar has the potential to “leapfrog” dirty energy.  Just like developing nations did not rely on landline technologies for their telecom needs, they may not need old fossil fuel technologies for their energy needs (barring transportation of course).

Take cooking, for example.  More than 90% of sub-Saharan Africans use firewood or tree-derived charcoal to cook food for their massive families, releasing massive amounts of CO2 in the process.  Countries like Uganda are losing 2% of their forest every year to cooking fuel.  In fact, deforestation is East Africa’s single biggest contribution to global warming: not only do you release CO2 by burning the wood, you also eliminate a carbon sink by destroying the forests.  It’s a double whammy.

And for all this dirty energy, what do villagers get?  A 5 mile walk and a house full of smoke.  Every day women (it’s always women) walk farther and farther (because the nearby forests are steadily being cut down) to gather firewood, carry it back on their heads, and start cooking inside their houses.  Yes, inside the house.

Now, you know how when you sit around a campfire, the smoke always seems to follow you, and it’s so unpleasant that you spend the entire night shifting your chair around and shouting “white rabbit!”?  Imagine sitting with the campfire INSIDE A HOUSE!  It is not a place you EVER want to go.  One of the foulest experiences of my time in Uganda was demonstrating a solar light in a mud hut in which a woman was cooking lunch.  All I wanted was to show her how bright it was, but I could not spend more than 5 seconds inside because I couldn’t breathe and my eyes burned as surely as if the fire itself were jumping into them.  No wonder indoor air pollution is one of the top killers in Africa.

Incredibly, the cat does not roast next to this indoor cooking fire

What new devilry is this? (A demon of the ancient world)

Charcoal reduces smoke compared to firewood, but costs a fortune.  My housekeeper, for example, spends 30% of her annual income just buying charcoal to cook.

And yet for $18 (or $6 for a charcoal stove) — only two weeks earnings even for the poorest of the poor — a family can purchase a clean burning cookstove that uses half the firewood or charcoal, and reduces their smoke inhalation by half.  Less time gathering firewood = more productive time at home, on the farm, or in the shop.  Less smoke = better health and thus better incomes.  Once again, reducing carbon emissions increases economic growth and human welfare – it’s the dirty old technologies keeping developing countries down.

Or look at lighting.  97% of rural Ugandans use kerosene – a fossil fuel – for light.  But kerosene is dirty, dim, and inefficient.  The US Department of Energy estimates that kerosene users pay 150 times more per unit of light than those using efficient CFL bulbs powered by the grid.  For a typical family in Uganda, this adds up to $72 per year, or 15% of per capita GDP!  And despite spending all this money, the light is too dim to read by and too smokey for human health, contributing to high dropout rates among students and lung disease among frequent users.  Try sitting inside a small, poorly-ventilated room that’s had a katadooba burning for 4 hours.  It will make you sick.

Yet for less than $50, a poor household can get a solar light that lasts for 5 years without needing new batteries, is 10x brighter than a kerosene lamp, and even charges their mobile phones.  That’s an 8 month payback: Over that same period of time, they would have spent $360 buying kerosene every day.  (And in fact, another $200 charging their phones).

Clean energy is, in fact, big business in the developing world.  The number of companies in Uganda selling clean cookstoves or solar products is staggering.  Drive through any trading center in upcountry Uganda, and you will see at least two shops with solar panels stacked outside the door.  One day a few months ago our car broke down next to a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere Kayunga District.  I figured I would use the opportunity to show our solar lamps to the farmer.  He didn’t speak a word of English, but his educated son informed me that “oh yes, we already have solar.”  Sure enough, they had a 90W solar panel on their roof, which cost them UGX 2 million (about $800).  My friends running an up-and-coming solar company are shipping $1 million a year of solar systems into Congo of all places!

It seems counterintuitive at first.  After all, if renewable energy is expensive in the US, how can poor countries afford it?

But when you consider the cost of extending the grid to remote villages, and how even the big cities suffer from blackouts, it’s not hard to understand why: compared to the alternatives, renewables are both cheaper and more reliable than fossil fuels.  It’s cheaper to pop a solar panel on a roof than to string up 10 miles of distribution lines to a rural household that won’t consume enough electricity to pay for the lines.  And the sun is always shining, so you have power even when the power plant faces shortages.

Simply put, when it comes to developing nations’ economies, doing nothing about climate change just isn’t an option: it’s clean tech or bust.

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