Kofi Bentil : Live Earth versus Africa

5 Jul 2007 on Critical Opinion.org

Few people in Africa will get to see Al Gore and his troupe of rock-star ecologists strutting their stuff during the series of Live Earth concerts this weekend – because most have neither television nor electricity.

That’s just as well, because they would be aghast at LiveEarth’s bizarre message. In Africa, we have much more serious things to worry about than climate change. Indeed, if they achieve their objective the concerts will have done harm to the people of Africa.

Britain’s former Secretary of State for the Environment, David Miliband, recently said that the rest of the world cannot aspire to the UK’s standard of living because: "If the world were to have the same living standards as we have in the UK, then we’d need three planets to support us.

Presumably Mr Miliband would disagree with Indira Ghandi, who famously said “poverty is the greatest polluter.” Miliband was replaced by Hilary Benn, who as Minister for International Development ran the Department for International Development (DfID). One might have thought that DfID would have supported economic development as a means of escaping from poverty and pollution.

But in its Rough Guide to a Better World it advocates “Development by Dung” and claims that “As poor countries develop, it is essential that they do not follow the same failed patterns of energy use.” So it’s dung not diesel for Africa – while India and China soar ahead because they are too big, and nuclear-armed, to stop.

Even if we accept that global warming may have a significant effect on our climate, limiting the use of fossil fuels in Africa would be counterproductive. Respiratory infections are the leading cause of childhood deaths on my continent, mainly from inhaling the smoke produced by burning wood and dung in our quaint mud huts.

Why do we burn these “renewable” but very dirty fuels? Not because we have some desire to save the Earth. No, sir. It is because we don’t have access to natural gas or electricity.

The second leading cause of childhood deaths is not malaria or AIDS, it is diarrhoea, caused by drinking dirty water. Why is our water dirty? Mainly because we lack cheap, efficient means of pumping and cleaning it. That requires fossil fuels – either directly or to produce electricity.

An underlying cause of many health problems in Africa is malnutrition. This is a consequence both of inefficient farming and poor food distribution. To rectify this situation will mean using cheap and relatively clean fuels, such as gasoline and diesel. (Of course we also need better roads – which can only be built using machines that burn… fossil fuels.)

Our already poor and struggling countries are being sucked into a giant movement to save the Earth – with aid money as the carrot and the stick. If we are cajoled into using more expensive “renewable” forms of energy, we will remain uncompetitive and our rates of economic growth will remain low or shrinking.

That would be a tragedy because economic growth has been shown to be the best way to reduce poverty and improve health. Please, Europe and America, spare us! You can cut your own emissions if you want, but don’t tell us what to do. We really have much more serious and urgent threats to deal with.

Unfortunately, our beggarly governments are very susceptible to diktats from on high, especially when they are offered aid (which they use to line the coffers of their bank accounts): don’t encourage them!

Humanity has proven itself hugely adaptable. We survived an Ice Age and a period probably much hotter than today (around 8,000 years ago). The Dutch salvaged land from the sea and built on it. In Saudi Arabia, they drink desalinated sea water.

The Tuaregs adapted to the blazing heat of the Sahara and the Eskimos adapted to the freezing cold of the Arctic. So why do the pessimists think we won’t adapt to another change in climate? Why are they hyperventilating about what is likely to be a relatively minor environmental shift? Perhaps they dislike the idea of Africans really developing.

But if global warming is real and does change the climate in Africa, then we will need greater wealth and access to modern technologies in order to adapt.

Schemes that bar us from those technologies and undermine economic growth will prevent us adapting to change. What will the ageing politicians and rock-star ecologists do for us then?

Kofi Bentil is a lecturer at Ashesi University, a business strategy consultant in Accra and winner of the World Bank "Ghana Development Marketplace" award for entrepreneurship.