If Everyone Gets Electricity, Can the Planet Survive?

Updated on September 29, 2015

Last week, the vast majority of the world’s prime ministers and presidents, along with the odd pontiff and monarch, gathered in New York to sign up to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Across 169 targets, the SDGs declare the global aspiration to end poverty and malnutrition, slash child mortality, and guarantee universal secondary education by 2030. And they also call for universal access to modern energy alongside taking “urgent action to combat climate change.”

These last two targets are surely important, but they conflict, too: More electricity production is likely to mean more greenhouse-gas emissions. The UN squares that circle by using a definition of modern energy access that involves a pitifully low level of electricity consumption. But that does a disservice to both those worried about development and those concerned by climate change. Poor people are going to have to consume a lot more energy if they are to enjoy a lifestyle that those in the West take for granted—and that is going to take environmental pragmatism in the short term and a revolutionary change in the technology of electricity production in the long term.

The Best Welfare Reform: Give Poor People Cash

More than 1.3 billion people across the planet have no access to electricity. Many of those who do have access suffer brownouts, blackouts, and other forms of limited supply. Absent electricity, people use less efficient and more harmful substitutes: Kerosene lamps are often behind burn injuries and deaths around the world, and working under those lamps is as bad for your health as smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. That’s why the arrival of power lines can be so transformative. Electrification in northern El Salvador was associated with a 78-percent increase in time studying and in class among school-age children and a 25-percentage point increase in the likelihood of households operating a business. These businesses made on average $1,000 a year—not bad in an area where local incomes are around $770 per person.

Recognizing the development impact of electricity access, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has championed the idea of “modern energy access” for all, involving universal electricity and clean cooking fuels like natural gas. The IEA claims that the additional electricity consumed by the newly connected (alongside the gas used in clean cooking) would add just 0.7 percent to global greenhouse-gas emissions in 2030. In large part that’s because the organization suggests energy for all would add just 1.1 percent to global energy demand.

That’s possible only because the proposed consumption levels are so low. Rich countries use a lot more electricity than poor ones: According to 2011 World Bank data, the United States consumes 13,240 kilowatt hours (kWh) per person per year, while Ethiopia consumes 56 kilowatt hours per person. The IEA suggests that 500 kWh a year for a newly connected urban household is sufficient, at least for now. This might be enough to operate a floor fan, a small refrigerator, a small TV, a couple of mobile phones, and two light bulbs. But a new large fridge in the United States can consume 500 kWh all by itself. A freezer could similarly bust the IEA household budget. And even in a comparatively chilly place like Vermont, central air conditioning for a household uses an estimated 1,125 kWh a year. Electric heating can add another 1,000-plus. Add in washing machines, fans, lighting, and a television, and usage increases further. And that’s just in the home. If developing countries are going to get richer, healthier, and more educated, schools, hospitals, factories, and offices need to be powered. According to World Bank data, no country in the world with an income per capita above $10,000 has electricity consumption below 3,880 kWh per person per year. That’s nearly eight times the IEA target for a whole household.

If low- and middle-income countries were to reach an average electricity consumption of 3,880 kWh a year per person (and many are already above that level), global electricity production would have to climb 60 percent. Were they to get to one half of U.S. levels, electricity production would rise 130 percent.

We should want that to happen. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals call for rapid progress in income growth, employment opportunities, poverty reduction, and health and education outcomes. Electricity is a vital part of that progress. But given the central role of electricity production in climate change, that progress poses a challenge. For example: In especially hot years, economic output declines in poor countries while it does not in rich countries. One reason why: Rich countries have more air conditioners. At the same time, the impact of hot air on poor economies is one reason why the SDG climate-change goal is also important: Global warming is going to hit poor countries hardest.

The good news is that the world’s energy supply is already changing—each year boasting more production capacity for renewable energy like solar and nuclear than fossil-fuel capacity in the form of coal and gas-fired power plants. Still, meeting short-term energy demand in developing countries in a way that is climate-sustainable requires taking steps that will alarm environmental advocates. Costa Rica, for example, recently powered itself for 75 days using only renewable energy, but more than 80 percent of that power came from dams. Other countries that rely heavily on renewable energy are using nuclear power. Countries that have experienced some of the fastest declines in emissions in recent years have used fracking to increase production of natural gas, which produces less greenhouse-gas emissions than coal.

In the long term, sustainable, reliable supplies of terawatts of energy need to be researched, developed, and scaled. Solar and wind are already playing an exciting and rapidly expanding role in powering the developing world. But countries also need electricity at night when the air is still. A group of British scientists and economists including Lords Nicholas Stern and Richard Layard have called for a “global Apollo program” to help fund the research and development of sustainable generation, storage, and smart-grid technologies, financed by 0.02 percent of global GDP.

But these technologies don’t exist yet, and that is one reason why the United Nations is so mistaken in low-balling electricity demand from developing countries. The estimate implies that this energy challenge can be met with existing technologies like off-grid solar and batteries, combined with an increase in energy efficiency, and without painful choices about the use of existing technologies. The word “solar” appears 21 times in the 2014 UN “Sustainable Energy for All” report, while “wind” is invoked 13 times and “energy efficiency” gets 70 mentions. “Hydro” gets only seven mentions and
“dam” is avoided altogether—along with “nuclear” and “fracking.”

Those who are anti-coal, anti-gas, anti-dam, and anti-nuclear when it comes to energy development in the developing world are implying that people there shouldn’t use electricity at nearly the level or low price that Westerners do. This, in turn, denies people safety, security, longevity, and comfort. Pretending the technologies already exist to avoid any tradeoff between environmental and developmental concerns doesn’t help. These technologies need to be researched and developed through robust investment, so that the climate can be sustained even as poor people around the world enjoy a better quality of life.

The Anti-Governance Party

If you have had any working exposure to the way big aviation, infrastructure, telecom, agricultural, or other high-stakes business actually gets done around the globe, you realize that the departures-from-market-optimum created by ExIm are tiny compared with those caused by governments in Asia, Europe, Latin America, the Emirates, etc. If you’d like to read about this at length, I invite you to check out my books Looking at the Sun and China Airborne.

Thus in an economic system modeled solely in a classroom, or consisting entirely of the United States, ExIm would be a waste. But in a world where Boeing, GE, Caterpillar, etc are dealing with usually more subsidized competitors from Asia and Europe, doing without ExIm is a form of unilateral disarmament. I say this based on what I have actually seen over the decades.

(And, yes, I also recognize that according to purist theory, even “unilateral disarmament” in trade competition still makes sense, in maximizing consumer welfare. For why I don’t think that’s the end of the discussion, please see “How the World Works” from back in the 1990s. I’m all in favor of expanded trade! But the U.S. did not grow rich by applying pure Ricardian trade theory, nor did England or Germany or Japan or any place else.)

Here’s a parallel: In principle, all military spending is a big waste. Armies destroy things. Their contracting systems are historically rife with corruption. Everybody would be much better off if military spending everywhere went down.

I can agree completely with that in-principle goal — and yet still consider it an idiotic blindness to realities if someone tried to defund the entire Pentagon to reinforce this theoretical point.


In last night’s installment, I didn’t fully spell out the pro-ExIm argument the way I had in books or 20-plus years ago in the magazine. Instead I just leapt to the end point, saying that willful blindness to real-world consequences amounted to idiocracy. Readers beg to differ! And also take offense at the term. Here is a sample.

One of the friendlier-toned dissents:

I don’t think that opposition to the EX-IM bank ranks on the idiocy scale anywhere near the Republicans denial of global warming or their claims of a link between vaccinations and autism.

There are legitimate concerns about any government subsidy.  Government subsidizes things like sports stadiums and single family housing; when these things are subsidized, there are opportunity costs–other parts of the economy must shrink.  Similarly, the EX-IM bank subsidizes large multinational exporting companies such as Boeng and GE.

You apparently hope that these government subsidies trickle down to U.S. workers and to smaller suppliers to these corporations, and perhaps some of the benefits do trickle down.  But these benefits are the result of exporters offloading the default risk on financing exports from themselves to taxpayers. Additionally, at least to a minor extent, when loanable funds are used to subsidize exports, this competes with and might crowd out funding for non-exporting businesses.

I don’t know enough about this particular issue to say more.  But generally you are even-handed in your analysis of issues.  In this case, you should at least acknowledge the potential costs of the EX-IM bank.

Agreed: any subsidy brings risks and costs. In my judgment and observation, the costs and risks would be worse from doing without. Now, from a writer who generally supports public efforts for the public good:

Obviously I don’t think I’m a zealot, and I like Fred Hochberg [chairman of ExIm, whom I also know and like], and I think I’ve been as outspoken about the wackadoodle GOP as anyone…but I think the Republic would survive the loss of the ExIm Bank.

I find the everybody-else-does-export-subsidies argument somewhat persuasive, but on the whole I doubt we really need a government bank to provide 99.8% safe loans to Boeing and Pemex and the emirate of Dubai.

I think those of us who believe government has a very important role to play in fighting climate change and providing universal health insurance and so forth ought to support getting rid of marginal government roles that it can focus on doing those important things well.

I wrote him back giving my pitch on “this is the flawed world we live in, and you have no idea what mercantilism looks like until you’ve checked out the Chinese / French / etc.” He replied:

That’s fair. I bet I would feel differently if I knew anything about foreign affairs…

I guess what I would say is that it doesn’t seem completely cut-and-dry, and that defenders of the ExIm don’t usually acknowledge that the gross mercantilism you mentioned is gross. I also think the corruption scandals that inevitably seem to pop up at obscure money-sloshing institutions like this really do give government a bad name.

I agree that it’s important to acknowledge the costs and distortions of institutions like ExIm, and insist that they be run well.

Finally, a scolding letter from a reader who I believe is an MBA student at a leading business school. He started with complimentary remarks about my past practice of airing dissenting views. But …

That is why I found the attitude in your latest post on the Ex-Im bank to be so disappointing.

You write that “The people bringing down the Export-Import bank are zealots who care more about their theories than the completely foreseeable damage they are doing to American workers and companies.”

I don’t have a strong view one way or the other on whether the Ex-Im bank is good policy (my sense is that in a perfect world we wouldn’t need it, but in our imperfect world I’m not sure whether it is better or worse than other feasible “second-best” policies). But I do have a strong view that the attitude in the above quote in particular, and your entire post in general, is out of character, factually incorrect, and dangerous.

It is out of character because, as I mentioned earlier, you have a long and admirable history of giving a respectful representation of those that disagree with you (your series on the Iran nuclear deal is one recent example of this).

It is factually incorrect because the opponents of the Ex-Im bank are self-evidently not Ayn Rand fanatics. The opponents include not only the conservative Greg Mankiw and the libertarian leaning but hard to classify Tyler Cowen, but also Senator Obama in 2008. [JF note: this was a throwaway reference in a campaign speech, unrelated to anything Obama has said or done since.] Perhaps in the last few years Obama has started inserting block quotes from the Fountainhead into his speeches, but if so I have somehow missed it.

It is dangerous because it is an example of a habit of thought that closes our minds and prevents us from learning. As soon as we explain our enemy’s disagreement as resulting from some defect in their intellect or character, we feel safe to ignore any of the actual good arguments that identify flaws in our own position. The problem is that it is much easier to find some reason that our enemy is a knave or a fool than it is to question our own beliefs. If this habit is left unchecked, we get our contemporary politics: one group on either side of the aisle, each totally convinced that they are the party of honest, right-thinking folk defending the truth and the light against the pack of morons and zealots on the other side.

This is an easy pattern of thought to slip into – it may even be automatic. But for that reason it is all the more important to consciously fight against it. You have historically been at the vanguard of this fight. I hope that this post is merely a temporary stumble.

I wrote back saying that the tone was a decision rather than a stumble, but that it was based on observations I hadn’t bothered fully to spell out this time. Rather than take the argument through any more cycles right now, I’ll thank these readers and others for weighing in, and encourage readers to look more closely into the issues at stake with ExIm.


Still:  I think it would be a big, pointless, self-inflicted, and self-indulgent policy error to kill off the ExIm Bank.

The Pope’s Meeting with Sex Abuse Victims

Conservative Christian communities are split between doubling down on their advocacy, or walling themselves off from mainstream culture.

According to a growing number of Christian leaders and thinkers, America in 2015 looks a lot like the declining, dissolute Roman empire. Conservative blogger Rod Dreher, a Protestant-turned-Catholic-turned-Orthodox Christian, has introduced what he believes to be the best way forward for Christians embroiled in the culture wars: The Benedict Option. Dreher asks whether Christians ought to emulate the 5th-century Roman saint, and undertake “communal withdrawal from the mainstream, for the sake of sheltering one’s faith and family from corrosive modernity and cultivating a more traditional way of life?”

Saint Benedict was born around 480 AD in Nursia, Italy, an area of southeastern Umbria now best known for its wild-boar sausage. He lived at the time of the rise of Christian monasticism, a tradition founded several generations earlier that encouraged Christians in Europe (and, eventually, the Middle East) to leave their families of origin and trade communal life in society for monastic life in the desert, either alone or in small clusters led by abbots. Benedict’s studies took him from Nursia to Rome, a city he found degenerate and full of vice. Repelled by the licentiousness of urban life, Benedict retreated with his family servant to the Sabine Mountains, where he became a monk, led a monastery, and eventually wrote the Rule, a 73-chapter handbook on prayer and work that led to the founding of the Order of Saint Benedict, a group of monastic communities.

How Catalan Surivived

Barcelona is one of the best-known cities in the world, yet visitors expecting to practice their Spanish can often be surprised when they hear Catalan spoken in the streets. The language has had a troubled history, but is a key marker of identity in Catalonia, a region where many hope for independence from Spain.

This will soon come to a head as Catalonia prepares for regional elections on September 27. Should a coalition united on the issue of Catalonian independence win a majority, its leader—the current Catalan president Artur Mas—has said he would declare independence.

The On-Again, Off-Again Catalonian Independence Vote

Attempts to suppress the Catalan language and culture have deep historical roots but were intensified during the era of Francisco Franco. The dictator banned the Catalan language from public spaces and made Spanish the sole language of public life.

For 40 years under the dictatorship, Spain tried to present itself as an ethnically and politically homogeneous state. The execution of Franco’s opponents continued after the end of the Spanish Civil War. One prominent victim was the former Catalan president, Lluís Companys, who was deported from Nazi-occupied France in 1940 and then executed in Barcelona.

After the Spanish Civil War ended in 1939, the repression was not only political but cultural too. Catalan institutions were suppressed and Catalan was banned in the school system. Indicative of the new political order were statements from the authorities, the police in particular, such as “Hable el idioma del imperio”: “Use the language of the empire.”

The immediate consequence was that Catalonia lost many of the material resources for the production and reproduction of its culture. The Catalan language lost prestige in comparison with Spanish, and some upper-class Catalans began to start speaking more Spanish.

At the same time, between one and two million people from the south of Spain moved into Catalonia after the 1950s. These migrants were sometimes prejudiced against the Catalan language, not least because many of them did not even know about its existence before coming to Catalonia. Some felt no need to learn Catalan. This is the kind of problem which faces all stateless nations.

stop the erosion of the language.

With the death of Franco in 1975, and once democratic freedoms had been recovered, the 1978 constitution recognized linguistic plurality and established that Spanish languages other than Castilian could be official languages of the state. Catalan is now compulsory in Catalonian schools.

Catalan is spoken in Catalonia, but also in the Balearic Islands, in parts of Valencia, in Andorra, in the French province of Roussillon, and in the Italian city of Alghero. Overall, it is spoken in a territory that contains over 13 million inhabitants.

More than 150 universities in the world teach Catalan and more than 400 journals are published in the language. Ironically, Catalan studies are only weakly represented in Spanish universities, reflecting both the historical discrimination against Catalan and contemporary concerns about the drive for independence in Catalonia. Only seven universities in Spain (outside Catalonia) teach and research Catalan, whereas 22 universities offer courses in the U.K., and 20 French higher-education institutions offer Catalan Studies, as do 24 in the U.S.

ninth language in Europe in terms of number of speakers—more than Swedish, Danish, Finnish, or Greek. More than 80 television channels and more that 100 radio stations are broadcast daily in Catalan and there is a long publishing tradition. Each year in Spain almost 6,000 books are published in Catalan, some 12 percent of the total number of books published in the country.

What the Catalan experience seems to demonstrate is that banning a language may be an effective way of preserving it. Speakers of a banned language feel resentful and resist authoritarian reach into their culture. This Catalan emotion was picked up nicely by the Irish writer Colm Tóibín while he was living in Barcelona in the 1970s.

People lived in a private realm. The parents had moved into that realm at the end of the Civil War, and they had remained in that realm … But what was also interesting was that Catalan, the language, was considered a way of being free … No one was talking about history. No one was talking about politics. But people were talking in Catalan. And they considered that a fundamental way of resisting, or being apart from official Spain, or the regime.

This Catalan reaction is also expressed by a Catalan writer exiled in Mexico, Pere Calders, in his 1955 short story, “Catalans in the World.” A Catalan traveler in the Far East, at an evening party encounters a parrot which, to his surprise, utters Catalan phrases. He was overcome by emotion: “Many were the things which made us different but there was a language which made us one. … Early that morning, when I left, I had a softer heart than the day I arrived.”

As a Catalan myself I have experienced this emotion. After years of teaching Spanish in Queen’s University, Belfast, a language I value the more I teach it, last year I offered a course in Catalan for the first time. Standing in front of my students on that first day, I had to try hard to avoid tears.

This post appears courtesy of The Conversation.

The Conversation

Tossing the Book at Palestinian Stone-Throwers

Earlier this month, following the death of an Israeli man who lost control of his car after Palestinians pelted it with stones, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he would “declare war” on stone-throwers.

As with most things related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the declaration generated controversy abroad and initiated a debate inside Israel over how to punish an act considered to be symbolic and relatively harmless in some instances and violent and dangerous in others. On Thursday, Israel’s security cabinet unanimously voted to approve a temporary series of measures meant to clamp down on rock-throwing.

The measures will last for three years and will impose a minimum four-year prison term for Palestinians who throw rocks and Molotov cocktails. As Reuters notes, that may include sentences for minors between the ages of 14 and 18 and possible fines for their parents, along with the cancellation of some benefits like welfare.

Perhaps most notably, the measures also alter the rules of engagement with rock-throwers, expanding the permitted use of live fire by Israeli forces against individuals in some situations. In a statement, the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office explained:

The security cabinet has decided to authorize police to use live ammunition against people throwing stones and Molotov cocktails when the life of a third person is threatened and no longer only when a police officer is threatened.

The cabinet’s decision goes against the recommendations of Yehuda Weinstein, Israel’s attorney general, who called for the minimum sentences to be instituted over the course of a one-year trial period and also opposed changing the rules of engagement.

“Officials who took part in the meeting noted that the ministers accepted the attorney general’s position that the minimum sentencing would only apply to adults who throw stones and firebombs,” noted Barak Ravid at Haaretz. “They also accepted his recommendation to leave a loophole that would allow judges to deviate from the minimum sentence as long as they can justify it.”