Low-Income Nations: Becoming Climate Resilient
Posted in Opinion by Kate Archdeacon on August 3rd, 2010
The idea that Africa could somehow leap to a boom economy will strike some as hopelessly wishful thinking. But the seeds of this possible future already exist. The combination of solar power, mobile phones and IT, for example, is already transforming the economic prospects for villagers across the continent. A simple piece of software enabling the transfer of small amounts of money instantly and cheaply by mobile is plugging remote rural backwaters into the global economy as never before. Millions are saving money, time and their health by switching to clean, efficient sources of energy – from solar to biogas, biomass to hydro. Agricultural innovations, too, are mushrooming, from water harvesting and hydroponics to the precise application of fertilizer and irrigation via GPS.
All such breakthroughs have one common characteristic: they are low-carbon technologies. The phrase has a rather worthy feel – especially when applied to developing countries. But it masks an intriguing possibility: that low-income nations could outflank the industrialized world, skipping the heavyweight, fossil fuel-dependent economic model and leapfrogging into a carbon-light future.
Nothing epitomizes that potential better than the mobile phone revolution. “In India in the 1990s,” observes Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, “it took four years to get a land line. In come the private phone companies, and now the poorest Indians use mobiles to their fullest advantage – not just calls, but cash transactions and new business models. Rural India has genuinely leapfrogged the world in optimizing the benefits of this technology.”
As surprising as the extent and speed of the shift is the way it’s been delivered. Once upon a time, late last century, a massive infrastructural achievement like this could only have been conceived as a huge aid project – and one that would probably never have got off the drawing board. If the World Bank had been asked to fund a functioning telephone network for every Bangladeshi back in the 80s, its bean-counters would have thrown up their hands in horror. Instead, it’s happened virtually without any subsidy, delivered by private companies at a profit to people near the very bottom of the pyramid. It’s been repeated right across the developing world – and it’s only just beginning: as IT migrates to mobiles, expect a surge of apps specially designed for Indian farmers, say, or African school kids.
It couldn’t have happened without a parallel surge in solar. Still seen as an expensive luxury in the rich world, it has spread rapidly among off-grid communities in developing countries; sometimes subsidized, increasingly not. A typical solar home system, providing lights, mobile charging and power for TVs, radios and DVDs, costs around $500. Not cheap, but thanks to the widespread availability of micro-credit, increasingly affordable. The benefits in terms of education, health and income-generation are nothing short of revolutionary. Millions of solar installations have been sold over the last decade; the market is growing exponentially, and specialist companies like India’s SELCO, and the Indian-American D.light, are becoming serious players. […]
The real excitement is the way technologies such as these can combine to create a new economy. Mike Harrison of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Kenya sees signs of this happening already: “There’s a huge number of individual initiatives, and we will continue to see lots of these being successful. Microgeneration, mobiles, IT breakthroughs, water harvesting, community jatropha plantations…could these spark some kind of momentum and change the game completely?”
It’s a question explored in a major new study by Forum for the Future, funded by DFID. The future climate for development: scenarios for low-income countries in a climate-changing world sets out a range of possible scenarios for the coming decades. They are not all exactly rosy – one scenario foresees a world in which oil shortages play havoc with the global economy. But they share a common conclusion: that the days of high-carbon prosperity are over. As lead author Jemima Jewell says: “Low-income countries cannot and should not have to make a false choice between addressing climate change and development. The report clearly demonstrates how the two are fundamentally, inextricably linked, with future scenarios to provide a practical means of exploring how low-income countries can best capitalize on the synergies.”
So how might a low-carbon future for low-income countries take shape? In energy, expect networks of smart micro- and mini-grids, using everything from solar and wind to mini-hydro and biomass. These could prove a far more effective way of delivering electricity to rural and even urban areas than attempting to roll out an inefficient, centralized system which in many countries is already stretched to breaking point. It’s a possibility explored in The future climate for development, and one which is already taking shape, as governments begin to recognize the potential. Nepal is planning mini-grids for its remote mountain valleys; China is rolling them out in sparsely populated western provinces; and the Indian Government has finally unveiled its much vaunted ‘Solar Mission’, with a target of installing a hefty 20GW of solar by 2022 – and bringing its price down to a par with coal generation.
Cities which have yet to collapse in gridlock or spend billions on old-style metro schemes, says Chris West of the Shell Foundation, could leapfrog to next generation urban transport systems, like bus rapid transit (BRT) of the sort pioneered in Curitiba (see, ‘Exclusive interview with the man behind Curitiba’s master plan’). He sees a future for “small, efficient bus fleets, structured like an underground but running on the surface…Undergrounds are so expensive, no city ever recovers the cost,” he says. By contrast, land values around BRT networks go up, and so rising rents swell the city coffers. Adair Turner sounds a cautionary note: “Status fascination remains a problem… High-income people in London will use the tube. High-income people in Nairobi will not use the bus. We will not have emerging economy middle classes immediately jump to the attitudes of the green middle class in high-income countries.”
As the ‘leapfrogs’ multiply, so developing countries will start to be attractive places to do business. Some companies could relocate their HQs there, drawn by cheap, low-carbon electricity and a vibrant workforce. Western countries could find themselves scrambling to keep up, says Camilla Toulmin, Director of the International Institute for Environment and Development. Unless we meet tough carbon reduction targets, she argues, we will be increasingly left out of the new economy. She cites a cautionary tale from the last century: “The US auto industry fought tooth and nail against government regulation on emissions. The net result was a complete inability to compete with the Japanese and Europeans for the 21st century car market. It shows how it’s a real mistake for government to listen to industry lobbies too much!”
It’s easy, of course, to get carried away on a rush of optimism. Toulmin sounds a note of caution. “[The low carbon transition] is not going to happen by itself… you need a mixture of measures, some economic such as subsidies, some institutional – like establishing and safeguarding land rights. And you need a proper price for carbon.” Other experts emphasize the need for vast improvements in fiscal and regulatory control, and in governance – with trust and transparency still lacking.
But virtually all agree that a simple functioning carbon market would be the single most effective intervention. “The minute you charge a proper price for carbon,” says Alan Winters, Chief Economist at DFID, “many other sorts of decisions – on food miles, on energy sources, and so on – become perfectly obvious. So many policies would be simpler if we could have a basic global carbon tax, involving every significant player. Yes, it’s politically difficult, but [it] is also the easiest solution in the long run.”
Instead, argues Hande, the Government should think: “‘What are the best interventions we can make to meet the needs of those 100 million households?’ And once you start looking at that, everything changes. A lot of people’s basic needs – like cooking, lighting, education, ways of earning income – can best be met with a combination of low-carbon interventions – solar, biomass, biogas, micro-hydro, and so on. These are site specific, highly efficient ways of meeting those needs; they’re not dependent on help from outside. So there’s a huge potential for developing countries to grab this with both hands, rather than just complain about the rich world.”
Perhaps the most crucial shift of all, then, is not one of technology, politics or money, but of attitude. It’s early days, but from India to Africa to Latin America, there are signs of a break from the post-war consensus that development necessarily involves ‘catching up’ with the industrialized West. Catching up, that is, through a distinctly 20th century mix of fossil fuels, heavy industry, intensive chemical-fueled agriculture and mass urbanization. “We might just be looking at a ‘values leapfrog’,” says Jewell, “where because low carbon living carries so many benefits in its wake, people see it not just as a necessity, but as an aspiration.”
Such a leap could give a whole new slant on that hackneyed term, ‘development’. In years to come, perhaps, ‘developing country’ will mean just that: unfolding and evolving, rather than striving to emulate the fossilized model of the 20th century West.