Global 2000, a report published by the Carter administration in 1980, offered a bleak forecast for the human race. It predicted “the world in 2000 will be more crowded, more polluted, less stable ecologically, and more vulnerable to disruption than the world we live in now … Barring revolutionary advances in technology, life for most people on earth will be more precarious in 2000 than it is now—unless the nations of the world act decisively to alter current trends.”
The report spawned neo-Malthusian policy prescriptions to restrict consumption, shrink the birth rate, and bring mankind into balance with the natural world. Yet Global 2000’s dire projections proved woefully incorrect. Even with rising global levels of population and economic activity, our relationship with the environment has only improved. Consider that U.S. energy needs have grown dramatically since 1970, but our production of dangerous pollutants—including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, and lead—has fallen. A growing population, after all, also yields more of the most important resource at our disposal: human ingenuity.
This has not put a stop to Malthusian speculation. There’s no shortage of voices still suggesting that economic growth necessarily harms the natural environment, that it’s time to start considering an economy centered around economic or ecological justice, or that we need policies to adjust to a zero-growth future. Doomsayers find support for their pessimism in the current locus of ecological concern: a changing climate. Global agreements to reduce emissions start with the assumption that every nation, even the poorest, must untether its economic future from fossil fuels.
These theories are as threatening as they are ill-founded: structuring policies around a low- or zero-growth future will stop global development in its tracks and trap a growing segment of the world’s population in poverty. But rejecting doom-and-gloom forecasts of impending environmental and economic catastrophe is not tantamount to denying the problem of global climate change. The best solution to that problem is in fact more growth and global development—much of which can be fostered with energy sources that do not add to emissions.
The globe is indeed warming, and we are largely responsible. Of the 16 warmest years on record, 15 occurred in the last century. Atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are increasing thanks to human activity; current concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide are higher than at any time since before humans evolved. Models, though notoriously imperfect, suggest these trends will continue.
With enough warming, we may reach a tipping point beyond which irreversible changes are possible. Abrupt shifts in ocean circulation patterns could upend the marine ecosystem. Hydrologic alterations could cause persistent droughts and food and water shortages. The worst consequences of climate change, however unlikely, could create conditions in which the environment would be transformed rapidly and unpredictably.
But climate change, even with these high-risk scenarios, is not the most pressing threat facing global humanity. The near- and medium-term risks of climate change largely just make existing problems worse. Nearly one-fifth of the developing world’s population is undernourished, 13 percent lack access to clean water, and 32.5 percent have inadequate sanitation. World Health Organization data suggest that 8.4 million deaths each year are attributable to the avoidable hazards of malaria, malnutrition, unsafe water, and indoor and outdoor air pollution.
Poverty is a better predictor for mortality risks than climate change. Higher carbon dioxide emissions have even been associated with fewer deaths from extreme weather as nations develop. In the advanced world, our lives are undoubtedly more improved by the economic development that fossil fuels enable than harmed by the threat of climate change.
For some, the conclusion to be drawn from this is that government-led efforts to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions should be abandoned. Under each scenario modeled by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, people in the future, even in the developing world, will be so much better off with unbridled economic development that it will counteract any negative effects of a warmer and more unpredictable climate.
Fossil fuels are certainly terrific at their job: they’re widely distributed, cheap to produce and refine, easily scaled, and yield power on demand. Technologies to harness these fuels are well-understood, widely available, inexpensive, safe, efficient, and reliable. Coal, oil, and natural gas prices have been dropping, making them more affordable than ever. Yet they do not answer all of the developing world’s needs.
Some 2.8 billion people still don’t have access to safe cooking facilities, and 1.3 billion don’t have access to electricity. At a minimum, households need energy for lighting, cooking, heating and cooling, and communications. Insufficient access makes everything more difficult: food spoils, lamps and stoves demand costlier or foraged fuel, and people are exposed to indoor air pollution, unsanitary conditions, poor nutrition, and avoidable illnesses.
Building sufficient traditional-energy infrastructure to satisfy demand will be a slow process, even under optimistic scenarios, and such infrastructure isn’t necessarily suited to the most immediate needs. Reliance on fossil fuels is a risky proposition for much of the world: many communities with traditional electricity connections grapple with brownouts, rationing, and bills that far exceed a household’s ability to pay. Fuels remain expensive, and supply chains to make them readily available are often underdeveloped.
Energy access is more important than access to any one particular fuel. In this respect, the needs of the developing world and the West’s priority on limiting emissions coincide, up to a point: access can be reliably provided in some places by other forms of energy.
Telecommunications history offers a telling analogy. Landline phones were a democratizing innovation, enabling instantaneous person-to-person communication. But the network infrastructure was limiting. Until the 1980s, having access to a telephone meant being in a service territory with a phone utility and having a wire to your home.
Mobile technology is wholly different. Enabled by distributed infrastructure, entire communities can gain access to phone communication at once. Untethering communications from the old infrastructure has expanded access in places previously untouched by such services. In 1990, there was no access to mobile technology in sub-Saharan Africa; by 2014, 78 percent of people held mobile-phone service.
A fossil-based energy future is dependent on the same type of network infrastructure that quickly grew outdated in the telecom industry. That’s why many developing communities are choosing other ways forward. Solar-energy systems and battery-enabled LED technologies don’t require any new infrastructure. Passive solar heating can generate enough hot water for washing. In some cases, greater efficiency is the answer. Development organizations are working to improve cook stoves so they release less indoor air pollution. Safe perishable food storage can be managed with changes that don’t require access to electricity or refrigeration.
There are similar opportunities in commercial activity and community services. Mechanical wind and hydroelectric technologies offer opportunities for irrigation, agriculture, and small industry. Remote health centers have turned to solar-power systems with battery storage for much of the last decade. With promising price curves, as well as capacity and efficiency improvements, these off-the-grid solutions may work well to power distant communities and encourage more rapid economic development.
Trends favor these investments. Prices for photovoltaic solar, wind, and battery-stored power are coming down quickly, reflecting advances in manufacturing, materials, and installation. If the experience of smaller lithium-ion batteries is any example, prices for large-format battery technology may drop by an order of magnitude in the next decade. Human ingenuity is making renewable energy cheaper to harvest, mobilize, and store for use when needed.
International aid should respond appropriately. In 2013, 97 percent of the $13.1 billion in capital investments for energy access in the developing world went to the electricity sector. Yet established World Bank policy permits financing for coal-power generation only where there are no feasible alternatives, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corp. uses a greenhouse-gas emissions cap to weigh its investments. The West has adopted incoherent policies that respond poorly to the developing world’s needs, putting too much or too little emphasis on fossil fuels. And the resurrection of Malthusian tendencies at the highest echelons of the international policy community is dangerous.
But we do not face a choice between improving the lives of billions now and an apocalyptic climate future. Rather, we have an opportunity simultaneously to improve the lives of billions and to make our future world safer. That starts with accepting a few things. There is no morally correct level of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Global prosperity is a necessary precondition for dealing with climate risk. Human ingenuity is an incredible and limitless resource. And our new target as a global community should be to alleviate the threats of climate change by eradicating poverty and building energy access.
For now, that means access to any source of energy. Distributed renewables present great opportunities for rapid availability in areas presently without reliable sources. And to be sure, strengthening fossil-energy infrastructure and supply chains will open access to the most reliable forms of energy in the long run. Policies that distort choices between the two are counter-productive. If we shift away from a focus on aggressive climate-mitigation efforts, we can refocus international cooperation on reducing health and environmental risks, building wealth, and developing innovative solutions. In that wealthier, safer, more adaptable future, reducing carbon emissions will not just be easier, it will be business as usual.
Catrina Rorke is director of energy policy at the R Street Institute.