Poor countries can grow despite energy curbs

by Jim Lobe

Washington, Jun 17 -- Developing countries can boost their energy capacity while curbing outputs of greenhouse-gas emissions if they adopt alternative strategies for generating power, according to researchers here.

A report by the Rand corporation urges poor-country planners to reconsider "business-as-usual" approaches to generating more electricity which, according to un estimates, are likely to triple their carbon dioxide emissions over the next 20 years.

The adoption of technologies such as natural gas and renewable forms of energy could cut projected emissions by nearly 25%, says the report, which was released by the Pew centre on global climate change, a research and advocacy group that backs international initiatives to reduce global warming.

"Conventional wisdom is that you have to build big, central-station power plants to get economic growth," says Mark Bernstein, author of the report, 'Developing Countries and Global Climate Change.'

"We need to get more information (on alternatives) out there," he says.

Most scientists believe that greenhouse gases, emitted through burning carbon-based fuel, are responsible for warming the earth's atmosphere.

In 1995, more than one third of such emissions worldwide - about one third of which came from developing countries - were produced in generating electricity.

Developing countries, intent on boosting their economies and bringing electricity to nearly two billion people who are currently without it, are expected to invest some $68 billion a year in energy projects in the period between 1995-2020, according to the UN's International Energy Agency.

Based on what the report calls "business-as-usual" investment trends, power generation will nearly triple the emission of carbon dioxide from developing countries within 20 years.

That represents a serious threat to international efforts to curb global warming, the reports warns.

The efforts so far have been confined to the major industrialised countries which have pledged in the 1997 Kyoto protocol on global warming to reduce their own emissions by at least five percent below 1990 levels by the year 2012.

The fact that developing countries whose energy use is climbing, are not included in the protocol has become a major bone of contention in the domestic debate over global warming in the United States.

Opponents of the Kyoto protocol argue that poor nations should also be required to reduce their emissions.

After signing the protocol, the administration of President Bill Clinton - bowing to pressure from pro-business Republicans and Democrats from oil- and coal-producing states - agreed not to seek senate ratification until key developing countries commit themselves to limiting their emissions.

Most developing countries reject this position. They say that the industrialised countries are responsible for virtually all the warming that has taken place so far, thus they should reduce their emissions before requiring developing countries to do so.

The report, a 300-word summary of which has appeared in paid advertisements in leading publications, argues that developing countries can reduce the growth in their emissions without sacrificing economic growth.

It sets out four main recommendations for policy-makers in developing countries, based on several models used by researchers at Rand, an independent, California-based research group known chiefly for its work with the Pentagon and other US national-security agencies.

First, the report calls for energy planners in developing countries to adopt new planning tools and methods of analysis in deciding on new investments to increase the supply of power.

Traditional planning methods have ignored environmental and infrastructure costs associated with delivering electricity to consumers, according to the study which concludes that infrastructure costs alone can reduce economic benefits by ten percent a year.

A more comprehensive analysis of costs will make renewable energy more viable in many cases, according to the report. It says that changes to investment decisions could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 2.5% and emissions of local pollutants, such as sulphur and nitrogen oxides, by far more.

Second, the study urges accelerated privatisation of the energy sector could also produce reductions in new carbon emissions of  up to one percent.

In addition, greater private sector participation in the electricity sector could reduce the emission of local pollutants and boost economic benefits by as much as five percent, according to Rand.

The report adds, however, that privatization may not be appropriate in all cases.

"If countries do not develop adequate regulatory regimes, including environmental enforcement mechanisms, privatization may shift the technology mix in directions that could have long-term negative environmental consequence," it says.

Third, increasing the use of natural gas and renewable energy could reduce carbon dioxide emissions by almost 25%, and local pollutants by as much or more, with the same economic benefits, according to the report.

Many developing countries will need up-front financial assistance to invest in these more expensive technologies, the study says, adding that international financial agencies and a proposed international emissions-trading programme could help in this area.

Finally, increasing the efficiency of existing electricity systems instead of building new power plants could lower energy prices and reduce greenhouse emissions by up to ten percent, according to the report, which noted that all the findings were based on an aggregate analysis and may not be appropriate for individual countries.

The Pew Center intends to follow the report with specific case studies on Argentina, Brazil, China, India, and South Korea.

"The study findings offer a blueprint for progress," says Eileen Claussen, the center's Executive Director. "But progress in the developing world will not build itself. The industrialised world has an important role to play in supporting reforms that will allow these benefits to accrue." (IPS)

The above article by the Inter Press Service appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).