Fossil fuels have helped the poor, so let’s try something different

  • Date: 19/07/18
  • Bjørn Lomborg, Project Syndicate

Over the past 16 years, nearly every person who gained access to electricity did so through a grid connection, mostly powered by fossil fuels. And yet donors say that many of the 1.1 billion people who are still without electricity should instead try solar panels.

For the well-off in both rich and poor countries around the world, lives are enriched by plentiful access to energy that provides light, fresh food, and clean water, and that powers technology and allows the ability to control the temperature.

Abundant energy provides the same life-transforming labor as hundreds of servants: Without a refrigerator, we would need to locate fresh food daily, store shelves would be half-empty, and a lot of food would go bad before we could eat it – one reason why, in 1930, stomach cancer was the leading cancer in the United States. Without synthetic fertilizer, which is produced almost entirely with fossil fuels, half the world’s food consumption would be imperiled. Without modern stoves and heaters, we would need to find our own firewood, and we would risk being poisoned in our own houses by killer air pollution. And without fuel-powered trucks, ships, and machines, humans would need to do nearly all the hard labor.

Worldwide, fossil fuels produce two-thirds of all electricity, with nuclear and hydro producing another 27%. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar, wind, wave, and bio-energy produce just 9.8% of electricity in the OECD, and this is possible only because of huge subsidies, cumulatively totaling more than $160 billion this year. Even ultra-environmentally aware Germany still produces more than half its electricity with fossil fuels.

Yet there is a disturbing movement in the West to tell the 1.1 billion people who still lack these myriad benefits that they should go without. A familiar refrain suggests that instead of dirty, coal-fired power plants, poor countries should “leapfrog” straight to cleaner energy sources like off-grid solar technology. Influential donors – including even the World Bank, which no longer funds coal energy projects – endorse this view.

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