Child cooking on wood fire in Botswana village

Idealism needs to be backed with realism to cut carbon emissions

Image credit: Lucian Coman/Dreamstime

Industrialised nations should take a more nuanced approach to encouraging the adoption of green energy technology in developing countries.

A Western guy, let’s call him Doug, walks into a rural African village. Horrified, he runs over to a woman cooking over a wood-burning stove. “You can’t do that,” he says, “think of the pollution!” Doug offers her a solution: “From now on you must use this bright and shiny hydrogen stove, and I’ll even come back every week to sell you the hydrogen fuel. By the way, that’s £250 for the stove – I know it’s expensive, but think of all the good you’ll be doing the planet!”

Doug’s position is clearly inappropriate, but if we extend the perspective to a country-to-country level, perhaps, that isn’t so apparent. Let’s consider international oil and gas and its evident clash with a net-zero global agenda. Can we legitimately demand, Doug-like, that all countries stop extracting fossil fuels?

If asked, the developing world can claim in a perfectly reasonable and compelling way that improved wellbeing and living standards are an absolute short-term necessity and that long-term issues can only be fixed by revenue from sales of fossil fuels; they have no alternative. They could legitimately ask why they should limit their national development and their population’s future when they have a single viable path out of financial destitution.

More reasonably, therefore, we need to adapt our well-meaning ‘demands’ to allow for differing circumstances, taking actions ourselves to address the problem locally while influencing our desired change globally. Action number one: all wealthy oil and gas producing nations can and should dramatically reduce fossil fuel production and use immediately. We have the wealth, we can absorb the pain; there really is no excuse for inaction.

Controversially perhaps, developing countries that cannot absorb the financial pain or impose the results on their populations could in the short term be encouraged to increase their production, replacing some of that lost as developed countries scale back. They would gain immediate foreign-exchange revenue that they could use to make long-term investments towards a more robust, diversified and sustainable economy. Overall and over time, global production will still decrease, because consumer demand from the developed world will decrease. In the meantime, developing countries get a fair crack at accessing fossil-fuel revenues to build growth and improve their populations’ quality of life.

If it follows this route, the developed world is left with a different question: how can rich countries help make the extraction of fossil fuels by others less harmful? Instead of screaming “Turn it off!” we say “Let us help you stop polluting.” Under this model, efforts would be targeted at using research and innovation capability to develop tools, technologies and processes that limit or remove the negative impacts of fossil-fuel extraction and use. The mantra becomes: “Let us help you make it as clean as it can be,” achieved by exporting high-tech green production technologies. This is not a high-​pressure sell from a Doug-type situation – the products are necessary regardless and low-emission variants can be priced competitively.

The significant incentive regimes that today encourage highly developed nations to produce hydrocarbons need to be overhauled as soon as possible. Pragmatically, we should align these mechanisms to our ambitions and remove local production incentives immediately. To hasten the transition of our fossil-fuel industries from a production-led model to one based on exporting services and technology, we should repurpose some of the current incentive regimes to subsidise the development of greener production technologies and to support their uptake by the developing world. This would ease our local short-term pain and protect local jobs, while assisting our global net-zero goals. We could then take the remaining sums to support the retraining and transitioning of our fossil-fuel workforce for jobs in renewables and sustainability.

In support of our drive for net zero, we could and should subsidise sales of these green technologies over traditional solutions, to encourage their uptake and use in the developing world. That would include helping support fuel-hungry industries, chemical plants, concrete or steel works. Using our carbon capture and storage and greenhouse gas capture technologies to remove harmful emissions, we can help developing countries to refine the fossil fuels they extract into useful non-polluting products, so they become long-term exporters of green raw materials.

This is a more convoluted, twisting route to the end of fossil fuels, for sure. Yet this kind of more pragmatic idealism would also limit the economic and social shocks, be fairer to all, and ultimately could mean a more effective, sustainable global transition to a new world of low-carbon energy. Surely this has to be a more effective approach than any well-intentioned international diktats or moralising could ever achieve?

Professor Phil Hart is director of energy and power at Cranfield University

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