Energy In Africa: Development And Environment
22 September 2014
It's always interesting to attend conferences in far away places because of the change in perspectives. At the World Energy Security Forum (whose organizers I advised) in Johannesburg, there was the usual discussion of different energy sources and their roles, but also senior politicians with much experience in governing.
A very perceptive remark was made by former Prime Minister Odinga of Kenya, who, discussing NGO opposition to some energy projects in Africa, remarked, "You can't have grandchildren if your daughter remains a virgin."
Similarly, he added that Africans wanted to conserve their environment, but not as a virgin environment. I told him of the acronym "banana" which stands for Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything and reflects the efforts of some NGOs to oppose projects outside their own countries, sometimes to extremes.
Which is not to say that foreign NGOs don't have a role to play. In younger countries, and especially those that have been wracked by violence in the recent past, capacity-building is crucial.
Providing education and other insistence to help governments improve decision-making on energy projects can be very useful, as long as the NGOs don't think their own beliefs are supreme and their own preferences can be universally applied.
All environmental decisions reflect a cost-benefit analysis, and in part of Africa, the benefits from energy projects can be enormous. If you don't think so, cut the power to your abode for a few days and see how much you enjoy it. For about a billion people worldwide, that is not an experiment but their lives.
It also arguably reflects a difference in "discount rates," or the perception of time. Climate change is much more of a long-term environmental threat than what many Africans face now, including deforestation and indoor pollution from the use of traditional fuels.
The latter has been estimated to contribute to 4 million premature deaths a year by the World Health Organization. So, to many Africans, talk of the dangers of climate change is like lecturing a starving person on the need to save for retirement.
Not every dam or power plant project is appropriate or optimally designed, and NGOs can make a positive contribution by helping to find environmentally sound energy projects, which includes renewables in many instances. However, the primary boom is likely to be in gas turbines and modular nuclear power plants, rather than wind and solar.