‘Climate reparations’ won’t help the developing world
What poorer nations need is industrial revolutions all of their own.
No you are not imagining it. As absurd as it may seem, it is really happening. The world’s great and the good have descended on COP27 in Egypt – in their private jets, natch – to denounce the evils of the Industrial Revolution. The process that birthed the modern world. That has lifted billions out of poverty, expanded life expectancy and delivered every modern comfort we now take for granted. According to the leading lights at COP, that process has proven to be so evil and destructive that its instigators should pay ‘reparations’. Reparations for the Industrial Revolution – as if the most liberating moment in history were the equivalent of a disastrous war or the enslavement of an entire people.
‘The deadly impacts of climate change are here and now. Loss and damage can no longer be swept under the rug… Those who contributed least to the climate crisis are reaping the whirlwind sown by others’, thundered UN secretary-general Anotónio Guterres as he opened this year’s conference. ‘Loss and damage’ compensation is the more palatable UN-speak for what climate activists are happy to call ‘reparations’.
The thinking goes something like this. The developed world, by industrialising, has produced the lion’s share of the world’s cumulative CO2 emissions. It is therefore most responsible for any damage to people and property wrought by climate change – the vast majority of which falls on the world’s poorest nations, which have contributed least to global CO2 emissions. According to the data, between 1751 and 2017, the US, the EU and the UK were responsible for 47 per cent of cumulative CO2 emissions, whereas the whole of Africa and South America have contributed just six per cent.
The trouble with this thesis is that it ignores the real reason for the ‘loss and damage’, and pushes us towards ‘solutions’ that threaten to make the problem worse. It places far too much emphasis on CO2 and climate change, and far too little on development. It is not a coincidence that the world’s richest countries are the least affected by climate change – it is development that makes a nation resilient to whatever the climate throws at humanity. And for the time being at least, development is dependent on CO2-emitting fossil fuels.
What developing countries need is to have their own industrial revolutions. Globally, thanks to industrialisation, the number of people dying from climate-related disasters has plummeted since the 1900s – by 95 per cent. And despite the focus on ‘loss and damage’ at this year’s COP, there is no evidence that economic damage from climate change is rising worldwide. In fact, as a percentage of GDP, weather and climate losses have decreased since the 1990s. In other words, even as CO2 emissions have increased substantially, and even as global temperatures have risen, the climate is causing proportionately less damage to humanity than it was 30 years ago – a time when few paid attention to the climate. This is true not just as a global trend, but also for every individual continent on Earth.
The reason is simple. As climate writer Ted Nordhaus explains: ‘Most of the costs associated with present-day climate disasters… are determined by economic development and societal resilience, not the intensity of the climate hazard.’ The only proven method of saving ourselves from climate-related disasters is development.
Yet it is precisely this development that those gathered at COP are determined to limit. And reparations, or ‘loss and damage’ payments, could easily become a tool for limiting that development. For decades Western aid has come with green strings attached. Since at least the 1990s, so-called sustainability has been prioritised over development. Developing countries have been encouraged to become low-horizons, green societies, rather than advanced, industrialised societies. Should climate reparations ever be given, we can expect similar stringent environmentalist terms and conditions.
Many Western governments have already banned their banks from financing fossil-fuel projects in the developing world. Any Western reparations will likely be directed towards renewable energy or other so-called sustainability initiatives. Many poorer countries are rich in oil and gas. But they are being told at COP27, in no uncertain terms, to keep it all in the ground. This week climate evangelist Al Gore castigated those African nations looking to drill for oil and gas in the wake of the global energy crisis. He suggested they are being duped by a new form of colonisation. Africa should instead become a ‘renewable-energy superpower’, he said.
But renewables are not the future for Africa. As NJ Ayuk, executive chairman at the African Energy Chamber, puts it: ‘No country has ever been developed by fancy wind and green hydrogen. Africans see oil and gas as a path to success and a solution to their problems.’ And Amani Abou-Zeid, energy commissioner for the African Union, is advocating for ‘a common energy position’ at COP27 ‘that sees fossil fuels as necessary to expanding economies and electricity access’.
Economic expansion, greater access to electricity – these are the gains of the industrial development we in the Western world take for granted. When electricity and gas prices soar, as they have in the past year, we rightly call this an ‘energy crisis’. But there are almost 800million people in the world who have no access to electricity at all – a figure that is tragically set to rise this year. Added to that, there are some 2.5 billion people who have some access to energy, but not enough to be able to cook with electrical appliances or with gas. Or think of those forced into subsistence farming, or who perform back-breaking labour, because they lack the energy supplies needed to power machinery. This lack of energy is a humanitarian catastrophe. Yet the grandees at COP intend to only make things worse.
Even for many emerging economies, energy supplies are incredibly insecure. South Africa, which is receiving Western finance to move away from coal power, has a daily energy shortfall of around 10 per cent, meaning that planned blackouts have to take place. Much of the world has to live with a permanent energy crisis – a crisis that blights lives and blocks development. This is why China and India’s leaders have snubbed this year’s talks, and are pressing ahead with a massive expansion of coal power.
What the developing world needs is a lot fewer COP meetings and a hell of a lot more growth and industrialisation. This is the only proven way to raise living standards and to build resilience to the climate. And yes, that will mean exploiting oil, gas and coal.
It’s time we took some pride in the Industrial Revolution, and encouraged other countries to have their own. We in the wealthy West should either bring theirs about, or get the hell out of the way. The wealth, health and living standards of billions of humans depend on it.
Picture by: Getty.