The cost to developing nations of leaving fossil fuels in the ground must be recognised


The EU is proud of its leadership on climate change. At the UN Climate Change Conference in Lima, it was clear that the Commission believed they were ‘at the cutting edge of global efforts.’ The Parliament too claims such a role. Prior to Lima, MEPs adopted a resolution calling for a halt to the use of all fossil fuels - coal, oil, gas, the whole shebang. You don’t get more progressive than that. Or do you? As leading academic Barbara Kellerman said,

"Followers are more important to leaders than leaders are to followers."

The quote came to mind because, while the EU may comfortably assert its leadership in the cosy confines of the Parliament or the College of Commissioners, the real question remains - how many are following? And a second question no less valid: do you walk the walk as well as talk the talk?

Let me put this in a more meaningful context. Take Botswana, a mid-sized country of just over two million people in the south of Africa. Botswana sits atop Africa’s largest coal resource - some 200 billion tonnes. It continues to sit atop the resource since it extracts only three million tonnes a year from its single pit. Despite the presence of such energy potential beneath its feet, Botswana imports 80% of its electricity from neighbouring South Africa. And importantly, half the population has no electricity at all. The great hope for Botswana is summed up in the slogan of its Ministry of Energy & Minerals: ‘The Future is Coal’.

In many respects, Botswana is much like the UK, or Germany, or France at the dawn of the industrial revolution, when European nations built their economies on King Coal. Botswana is still primarily an agrarian economy, and not a very successful one at that, with the spectres of drought and desertification ever present. Releasing its coal wealth could transform Botswana, electrify homes, hospitals and schools, and power industry. Coal exports could bring €1.5 billion in profit alone to Botswana’s exchequer over the next decade.

However, Botswana is not like the UK, or Germany, or France at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Were the coal resources of Botswana to be fully exploited, global temperatures would soar far beyond the 2oC global temperature rise that scientists say risks irreversible global consequences.

Is ‘The Future Coal’ for Botswana? Since Botswana intends to export rather than burn the coal, it could be argued that the issue of climate mitigation is for the burner of the coal rather than Botswana. Who knows, perhaps the coal will be burned in the most advanced power station fully equipped with Carbon Capture & Storage technology.

To encourage Botswana and like countries to turn from fossil fuels, the UN has established a ‘Green Climate Fund’, currently capitalised at $10 billion. That sounds like a lot, but conservative estimates suggest that $100 billion dollars is needed, A YEAR, every year beyond 2020 to support nations through the transition to a low carbon economy. The debate is still ongoing as to whether this money should be for mitigation (‘windmills for all’) or adaptation (‘mopping up the mess’). The one thing the fund isn’t for though is to compensate countries for economic loss, for the loss of opportunity, that results from leaving fossil fuels in the ground.

The EU’s leadership appears remote when viewed from the perspective of the developing world. It can’t be easy for developing nations to listen to a lecture on climate responsibilities from the region that caused the problem in the first place (and continues to burn coal like it was going out of fashion). Even President Obama has begun to talk up fossils fuels, albeit the unconventional, fracked kind, rather than coal. If the developed world is to continue to benefit from the exploitation of their fossil fuels, what of Botswana or Indonesia, or India or Columbia or all of those other countries with significant coal (or oil, or gas) resources.

It is perhaps one of the reasons why so far, of the 196 countries of the globe, only 33 have submitted to the UN their intended nationally determined contribution (INDC) to carbon emission reduction, and 28 of them are in the EU.

The challenge for the EU is to arrive in Paris with followers. To do that, the EU must temper its rhetoric; fewer lectures, more dialogue. It must find a way of recognising the economic cost to all nations of leaving fossil fuels in the ground, as well as the cost of climate change. Someone said that talk is cheap because supply exceeds demand. Maybe it’s time for the EU to look over its shoulder and see exactly how many are following on behind.