Friday, April 18, 2014
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The Power to Develop

CANBERRA – Trade-offs are an inherent part of life. We all recognize this from our private budgets. To fix the roof, we may have to accept a less extravagant summer vacation. When we pick a cheaper wine, we can splurge on dessert.

Trade-offs also pervade environmental policy: Cutting more of one pollutant, for example, leaves fewer resources to address other issues. For example, coal is phenomenally polluting, but it also provides for cheap and reliable power, which drives development. Over the past 30 years, China has lifted 680 million people out of poverty, mostly through the use of coal. The average Chinese has become more than 13 times richer.

At the same time, Beijing and numerous other Chinese metropolises are experiencing debilitating smog, reminiscent of London in the 1950’s. About 1.2 million Chinese die prematurely each year because of outdoor air pollution. Measurements from Beijing show that upwards of 16% of the air pollution comes from coal. The World Bank estimates that China’s total annual air-pollution costs – based on what Chinese themselves indicate they are willing to pay to reduce their risk of dying – could be as high as 4% of GDP.

And yet the Chinese trade-off has been phenomenally beneficial. In 1982, the average Chinese earned $585 a year; last year, she earned $7,958. Meanwhile, the annual per capita environmental cost is $318. So, not surprisingly, most other developing countries would gratefully seize the opportunity to replicate China’s growth pattern – including its pollution.

Of course, the Chinese could do more to cut air pollution. It is estimated that meeting the World Health Organization’s interim standards could reduce damages by $80 per capita. But that pales in comparison to the $600 increase in per capita income in 2013.

Nonetheless, many who live in rich countries confidently declare that this trade-off is not in the interest of the poor. The United States, the United Kingdom, and other European countries announced this year that they will not support international finance for coal-fired power plants in developing countries. These countries abstained in 2010 when the World Bank helped finance South Africa’s Medupi coal-fired power plant. Today, they would vote it down.

But Medupi will provide 10% of South Africa’s electricity and prevent rolling blackouts. As the South African finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, explained, “to sustain the growth rates we need to create jobs, we have no choice but to build new generating capacity – relying on what, for now, remains our most abundant and affordable energy source: coal.” The US government even acknowledged that, without a coal-fired power plant, South Africa’s “economic recovery will suffer, adversely impacting electrification, job creation, and social indicators.”

Energy poverty is even more acute for the three billion people – almost half of the world’s population – who burn dung, cardboard, and twigs indoors to cook and keep warm. The WHO estimates that while outdoor air pollution in developing-country cities may be ten times higher than in advanced-country cities, average indoor air pollution, caused by burning wood and dung, is a hundred times higher. Indeed, indoor air pollution kills 3.5 million people each year, making it the world’s deadliest environmental problem.

The world’s three billion energy-poor people need cheap electricity to cook and keep warm. And, for the foreseeable future, that electricity will be generated by fossil fuels.

Some environmental campaigners argue for cleaner stoves. But, while this might be part of the solution, it is essentially telling the poor to live with slightly less polluting open fires in their homes. Moreover, studies indicate that even significant air-pollution reduction starting at high levels will have only a minor impact.

Others claim that renewables are the way to go. Green energy, especially wind, can indeed help African countries, for example, get some electricity to remote, rural areas; but the grid will do the most good for the most people. According to a recent World Bank study, distributed renewable energy “will be the lowest cost option for a minority of households in Africa, even when likely cost reductions over the next 20 years are considered.” Popular solar lights cost almost $2 per kWh. Using hydro, gas, and oil, the grid cost for the main population centers in Ethiopia, Ghana, and Kenya will likely be $0.16-25 per kWh. In South Africa, where coal powers 90% of electricity, the cost is just $0.09 per kWh.

True, electricity from coal will cause extra air pollution. But pollution from indoor air pollution, which would disappear with electrification, accounts for 16% of outdoor air pollution. Even assuming (unrealistically) that coal produces all of the world’s air pollution, we could generate 250 kWh/year with coal for every one of the three billion energy-poor people and still end up with lower air pollution. Moreover, it is easy and fairly cheap to cut coal pollution 90% or more with scrubbers.

For many opponents of coal, the issue is global warming. According to Christiana Figueres, the United Nations climate chief, coal-fueled development has “an unacceptably high cost to human and environmental health.” She argues that we need to close 75% of the planet’s coal-fired power plants, including all of South Africa’s, because they emit too much CO2. Al Gore’s climate adviser, James Hansen, argues that if we allow developing countries to “come up to the level of the developed world, then the planet is done for.”

Yes, the world needs to address global warming (mainly through higher investments in green research and development, and by promoting exploitation of cheap, less-polluting shale gas). But global warming will cause damage worth possibly 1-5% of GDP by the end of the century, when the UN expects developing-world incomes to have risen by 1,400-1,800%.

Meanwhile, poverty is killing millions right now, with an impact on global GDP that is likely an order of magnitude higher. And too many people, however well-intentioned, are unwilling to acknowledge the tradeoffs needed to improve poor people’s lives.

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  1. CommentedAnkit Agrawal

    I understand that the total air pollution could be reduced by completely electrifying all the households. But why do you propose that Coal-based energy generation is the only way we can do that? You say that $2.00 is the cost of Solar energy per kWh, while energy produced from coal costs only $0.09 per kWh. What if the government subsidizes this $1.91/kWh difference, for the time being? Then, maybe it can gradually reduce the subsidies when new technologies help us get the same amount of power for a lower cost(A possibility which is highly likely). Why isn't a non-coal based energy production possible to bring those 3 billion people sufficient energy so that the inner air pollution is completely eliminated?

    1. CommentedTatiana Romanova

      And where is the money to come from for these subsidies? Destroying wealth is not the way to make the Earth cleaner of the people richer.

      Environmentalists must understand that many of their programs are not only killing people they are leaving the world worse off.

      Look at nuclear energy, which if built to the standards of the 1960s, would be even cheaper than coal. Then all the coal pollution in the world would be gone- a massive benefit to both man and the environment

      Instead, we get hysteria about Fukushima and radiation that make no sense at all. The safety and environmentally friendly nature of nuclear was established long ago.

      The same holds true for GMOs by the way

  2. CommentedEvan Jones

    Good observation regarding stability.

    Chinese life expectancy was 40 as recently as 1970. It rose quickly to 50, then steadily to 65 or so.

    You have an inherent grasp of the very real consequences of developmental tradeoff. We pampered pets of the west always sound shocked (or disbelieving) when they encounter the notion that poverty is the Great Killer. And what do we know about that? We consider poverty to be lack of insurance.

  3. CommentedEvan Jones

    Mr. Lomborg, outstanding article, outstanding.

    You have, of course done a massive amount of work on similar themes (I have been an ardent fan from the first time I read your work). But this focus is particularly topical and valuable at this time.

    @ WE ARE
    Your appalling comment strongly indicates you do not have any idea about what cost-benefit analysis is. Or the hideous human cost, especially to the poor, by ignoring it.

    Fortunately for us all, China and India will not listen to you. (They love their grandchildren too much.)

  4. CommentedRad Economics

    What a twisted a sickening view this article portrays. Killing 1.2 million people per year is not an acceptable "trade-off" for generating material wealth. Material wealth does people no good if they are sick. Poor people do not benefit in the long-run from increased air and water pollution and an unstable climate.

    "For the foreseeable future, that electricity will be generated by fossil fuels." Not if common sense prevails and we stop heavily subsidizing the fossil fuel industry and instead choose to invest in clean energy. This is a choice that we get to make. Current cost should not be the one and only factor that we consider. To dismiss the idea that we take climate change seriously because it costs too much is ridiculous (but let's not forget why fossil fuels are still relatively cheaper - subsidies, which we have the ability to change). How do you think future generations are going to feel about that attitude? Do you think they will look at the destruction we left them and think we made the right choice? "Wow....those people in the past saved a lot of money by totally screwing us over! It's a good thing they didn't spend a little more to correct their destructive behavior and leave us with a healthier planet!"

    "cheap, less-polluting shale gass"? Shale gas is absolutely not less polluting when you take the whole process into account. Try telling the people whose tap water is now combustible and burns their skin in the shower that shale is "less polluting". Then again, you don't care about those people - they are just a "trade-off" to you.

    1. CommentedTatiana Romanova

      Your forgetting that poverty kills. Look at India and see the suffering of the poor because they cannot afford proper sanitation or medications. Improving their material lives will allow them to live longer.

      Just as the wealth explosion of the early industrial revolution led to the explosion of populations throughout Europe. What good is a cure for cancer if the people cannot afford it?

    2. Portrait of Bjørn Lomborg

      CommentedBjørn Lomborg

      Dear We are.
      Thanks for your comments. No need for the hyperbole, though.
      The trade-off of 1.2m deaths or about 1.3 years off your life expectancy sounds dramatic, but wouldn't you also choose to increase your income 13 times, live much, much longer (up from about 50 to now over 70 years), even if in a perfect would you could have lived 1.3 years longer?
      Certainly, it is up to these developing countries to make that call, not rich, well-meaning Westerners. (We made the exact same trade-off in London around 1900, when air pollution was terrible, but London was one the richest spots on the planet.
      With regards to subsidies for fossil fuel and renewables, I support neither. But please remember, almost all fossil fuel subsidies are in third world countries to ensure political stability. (See my comment here:
      And regards to shale gas, the latest study actually seem to indicate that methane leakage is very minor (
      All the best, bjorn