Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Does Tanzania Need Fossil Fuel?

Michaela Collord's Preliminary Take on Bjørn Lomborg's Why Africa Needs Fossil Fuels

I can't pretend to be any expert in the energy sector (and I'm wary of personifying what Lomberg refers to as the naive western environmental activist), but I have a few major concerns with the piece. 

Now to dispense with the personal side briefly, Lomberg is a highly controversial character in climate science given his own lack of academic credentials and frequent dissimulation of the facts, both of which have attracted widespread criticism (see for example here). 

But attacking Lomberg does not deal with what is at base an appealing argument: Per capita electricity supply across Africa is extremely low; fossil fuels are a cheap and efficient way to generate electricity, unrivaled by renewables; therefore African states should invest more in fossil fuel-powered electricity generation. 
We can all agree on the first part of this argument. The problem comes with the second. 

First, Lomberg (seemingly willfully) misrepresents the energy generation potential of renewables (e.g. by characterizing solar panels as good for recharging a phone battery but nothing bigger). I don't have all the references at my fingertips now (I can come back with that later), but there is ample evidence from industrialized countries that investments in renewables can provide a viable alternative to fossil fuels. Germany and Denmark, for instance, have been able to generate the majority of their electricity from renewables at times when the weather conditions are favourable while in October last year wind was deemed the cheapest source of energy in the UK. 

Improvements in renewables technology have far outpaced expectations, bringing down the cost while improving efficiency. Yes, perhaps there can be backup electricity generation using fossil fuels, but renewables can do the job too. Regarding viability, it is also interesting to look at how China, which has invested hugely in the manufacture of solar panels in recent years, is now cutting deals with a number of different African governments (cf. Uganda) to set up large solar farms. 

Now leaving aside the viability of renewables vis-à-vis fossil fuels, of course Lomberg does not consider the development trade off in terms of increased air pollution and climate change. On air pollution, just look at how India and China have both been scrambling in recent years to introduce emergency measures to handle the high levels of smog that now routinely engulf their largest cities. The health implications in both countries (which if you prefer, we can also measure as a financial burden) have been enormous. 

Regarding climate change, of course there's the galling reality that industrialized, western countries are primarily responsible while developing countries now have to participate in the clean-up, but it's also true that climate change is a huge challenge for everyone (not least Tanzania, where among other things, projected sea level rise will pose a serious threat to Dar es Salaam). With developing countries now counting for over 60% of global CO2 emissions (and that figure is rising), we can't look to developed countries alone to act. As a result, there is an added incentive to invest in renewables now rather than lock in future CO2 emissions by taking the misleadingly easy route of fossil fuel-based electricity generation. It's a question of penny-wise pound-foolish. 

One last point in regard to Tanzania: If there is one thing the IPTL saga has taught us, it is that fossil fuels are not necessarily the quick fix they at first appear. There is some evidence that managing renewable energy generation offers fewer opportunities for rent seeking (which is perhaps another reason why it is less appealing to political elites - at least that is an argument that I have seen applied to the UK in recent years).


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