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How do we cut poverty and emissions? Fund some clean energy

by Laurie Goering | @lauriegoering | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 22 September 2016 16:55 GMT

Le Vu Cuong turns on a bulb of a wind power system made from plastic buckets on a boat at a floating village in Hanoi, Vietnam July 1, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

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Rich nations can protect their own best interests by helping the poorest countries adopt clean power

To avoid the worst impacts of climate change – from worsening droughts, flooding and storms to sea level rise – countries around the world need to make big cuts in the carbon emissions they release, and make them fast.

At the same time, the poorest countries in the world urgently need to bring people out of abject poverty. But richer people buy more and better food, more consumer goods, more homes and electricity and transport, all of which can boost emissions.

What’s the answer? Henry Shue, a philosopher and public policy expert at the University of Oxford’s Centre for International Studies, thinks there’s one promising solution: Rich countries need to pay poor ones to adopt clean energy, such as wind and solar power.

Why cough up the cash? It’s in our own self interest, he says.

Many poor countries would like to invest in clean energy, Shue explains. But in a world where they are already spending their limited cash on reducing poverty, on development efforts and on the growing costs of recovering from extreme weather disasters, they don’t have much left over for the job.

“Experience shows governments forced to choose (among their priorities) will rank the energy transition last. They will neglect that,” Shue said at a gathering of scientists this week looking into how to hold global temperature hikes to an ambitiously low 1.5 degrees Celsius. The other priorities are all “indispensible” for governments, he said.

Without the significant start-up cash to launch into clean power, the world’s poorest countries often end up doing what rich nations used to do – approving coal-fired power plants and other dirty energy in an effort to provide power to people who need it. In the short term, those options are cheaper for those on a tight budget.

Even Bangladesh, the world leader in small solar panel systems for home use and one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change impacts, is still trying to push ahead with a controversial coal-fired power plant on the fringes of the Sundarbans mangrove forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

That kind of decision making puts at risk the global goal agreed in Paris last year  of holding climate change-related temperature increases to “well below 2 degrees Celsius” – and it raises the threat of potentially catastrophic climate change for all nations, rich and poor.

“If we are going to achieve a 1.5-degree long-term goal, these (poorer) countries are not going to be able to do it on their own,” warned Saleemul Huq, director of the Bangladesh-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

But if richer countries help poorer ones put in place clean power systems, developing countries can grow and cut poverty without so many emissions. That produces more sustainable and secure economies in both places, Shue said.

“They get development that’s more sustainable and we get more compliance” with climate change limits, he said – and that means a future without the “crushing burden” of climate change everywhere.

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