In Bjorn Lomborg’s recent New York Times op-ed, “The Poor Need Cheap Fossil Fuels,” the author asks readers to simply “face it,” and accept that the only way to bring electricity and its associated economic growth to the developing world is by burning carbon and pollutant-emitting fossil fuels.
This view represents a stale and unimaginative approach to problem-solving. It ignores the reality that many renewable technologies are already economically viable. The combination of these new technologies and creative investment policies can bring life-saving power and economic growth to the developing world without doubling-down on destructive policies.
First Lomborg is wrong when he assumes that environmental damage from carbon emissions comes in the future. China, which Mr. Lomborg holds up as a model of economic development, faces significant economic consequences from its electricity policies today, not just in the ever-coming future. China’s fossil fuel-driven economic growth is so environmentally ruinous that the estimated cost of this damage in 2010 was 1.54 trillion renminbi, or 3.5% of GDP.
Second, renewables are not an expensive panacea reserved only for future consideration. Rather, clean technologies like wind, solar and geothermal are economically viable today and are being deployed around the world to reduce carbon emissions. China, for instance, has the most installed wind power of any nation on earth. And a 2012 McKinsey analysis found that solar is the cheapest power source for consumers in developing nations without a centralized power grid. If Lomborg is looking for a cheap and reliable power source for the world’s neediest, why doesn’t he face it that renewables can be the answer?
Third, wealthy nations can ensure that renewable power becomes even cheaper through low-cost financing. Organizations like the IFCand OPIC, in partnership with private investors, provide critical low-interest loans, insurance, and guarantees to renewable projects in developing nations. These tools drastically reduce a project’s cost of capital and lower the price of the associated clean electricity. These public-private partnerships also draw in far more overall investment and stimulate economic activity.
Lomborg says that he supports the use of fossil-fuels “until we can make a global transition to a greener energy future.” But this transition won’t just happen as a matter of course. And it certainly will not happen by advocating damaging, counter-productive policies. Don’t passively excuse yourself from helping this critical effort. Examine the facts and contribute new approaches like the ones listed above.
Lomborg is right in one way, though. We do need to transition to a new power platform. Cheap, clean, and abundant energy should replace expensive, polluting, and inefficiently consumed power. Lessons should be drawn from the telecommunications sector, which experienced a rapid transition in information and communication technology in the 1990s. As described in Zero Hour: Time to Build the Clean Power Platform, the new book by Reed Hundt, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, new technology, regulatory reform and low-cost capital changed the platform for all modes of information consumption in less than a decade. We should use a similar approach to move to a cleaner, carbon-free power platform. And we cannot let those who want to repeat the mistakes of the past hinder this task.
CGC Vice President Jeffrey Schub responds to Bjorn Lomborg’s New York Times op-ed “The Poor Need Cheap Fossil Fuels” in his own op-ed “Clean Energy for the Developing World Today.” Please comment to join to discussion.