The fact that our Earth might suddenly burst into a ball of fire or something close to it has alarmed several nations. On Thursday night, Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy hosted a panel discussion about the future of sustainability in a developing world. Bwog Staffer Angelica Lagasca covers the event.
Six pm on a Thursday found me, starving out of my wits, on a chair strategically placed in the back of a room in Faculty House. I had been saving my appetite, as the location of the event in the Faculty House seemed promising — one of the most well-kept buildings on Columbia’s billion dollar-endowed campus should be offering some sort of free delicacy, like maybe cheese or even a single cracker. This was not the case. Throughout the presentation, I had to satisfy myself with dust mites.
As the event began, my hunger began to subside in the way that chronic sensations eventually do. Jonathan Elkind, a Fellow and Senior Adjunct Research Scholar at Columbia’s Center on Global Energy Policy, framed the event in its context: when Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, perspectives had to adjust. Now more than ever, we are urged to define the relationship between development objectives and environmental protection, between poverty alleviation and resource destruction.
Philippe Benoit, managing director at Global Infrastructure Advisory Services 2050, gave a presentation addressing this relationship between development and consumption. Understandable for a ten-year old (the ten-year old equivalent being me), Benoit clearly explained a drastic global trend: as energy demand increases, greenhouse gas emissions increase. I don’t know if you know this yet, but that is a very bad thing. Globally, many countries have pretty much agreed (and promised) to keep the Earth from warming by over 2° Celsius. To dig ourselves out of this hole we’ve dug ourselves in, we first need to address the energy demand that fuels emissions.
As developing nations continue to develop (after — cough — years of suppression from First World countries), they tend to increase energy demand. This trend is particularly notable due to the emergence of a new, capitalist, and slightly dystopian/eerie/spells-of-doom “consumer class.” In China, the consumer class makes up 96% of the population; here, and in other countries, the demand for transport, new homes/apartments, and other goods has increased — and so has the demand for energy. To avoid halting this development, and instead to guide it into more eco-friendly avenues, policy makers have proposed solutions such as cleaner transportation and urban heating/cooling systems.
However, for those not in the consumer class — in other words, the people who make up the poorest population on the globe — the circumstances differ. Benoit theorizes that even if the 1.1 billion people who live without electricity could suddenly turn the lights on, the energy demand would only increase by 0.3% and emissions by 0.2%. These populations tend to live in rural areas, consume limited resources, burn biomass (which result in less emissions than carbon dioxide) and favor off-grid, household, and renewable systems.
Furthermore, a large portion of the carbon budget is still used by First World countries, where per capita emissions far exceed those of China and India. Benoit suggests — and this makes me proud, as if he were my son who just won the spelling bee — that First World countries should lower emissions in order to enable growth in Third World countries.
In the panel discussion that followed with Elkind, Benoit, Dr. Ellen Morris, Adjunct Professor of International and Public Affairs, and Kathleen Auth, the Deputy Energy Office Director for Power Africa, the panelists pulled out their swords and started dueling. Just kidding. They had some beef over the extent of outside private sector involvement. Dr. Morris and Auth argued that the private sector was vital and more helpful than the Third World country’s public sector in funding utility expansion, while Benoit argued that certain donors would push for their personal interests. Nonetheless, all agreed that Third World countries must ultimately depend on technical outside assistance to finance economic and renewable energy development. This agreement was less satisfying than the dust mites. After all, these panelists are largely involved in international efforts and don’t personally reside in Third World countries. Can there be foreign aid without financial imperialism? Can low carbon solutions be affordable and accessible for all?
As the panel discussion was coming to an end, and I was planning which animal I would hunt down in Morningside Park for my dinner (just kidding), the panelists went through a quick round expressing the hope they had in humanity to ultimately not torch the Earth into a neat crisp and subsequently destroy itself. All stored faith in the fact that the issues of energy access and climate change have gained traction on a global level; Auth praised how sustainable development efforts have combined humanitarianism and entrepreneurship, and Dr. Morris praised the increasing role of women in the energy industry as well as the development of regional forces in Africa to build their own energy infrastructure. Maybe, just maybe, our global temperature will just increase by 3°.
finally global leaders can see in the long term at least most of them via Wikimedia Commons