Extreme Weather Events IV: Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, 2005 © Sayler/Morris
Few Resources, Large Impact: Climate Change in Developing Countries
What is the present and future role of developing countries regarding climate protection? Dr. Maximiliane Sievert explains the importance of sustainable energy access for the climate and for development. By using the example of resource-friendly cookers, she shows that development and climate protection are not mutually exclusive.
Dr Sievert – at the Katowice Climate Change Conference 2018, the German Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said: “Those who contributed least to climate change are the ones who are affected by it the most.” Who contributed to climate change the most?
From a historical perspective, the now industrialised countries are the biggest producers of carbon dioxide. The developing countries have contributed very little to it. But when you look at the current situation and at the future, too, you will notice a different trend. From the early 2000s onwards, the emissions produced by all non-OECD countries have surpassed those of the OECD countries. So, when we think about climate change and those responsible for it nowadays, we must also consider the non-industrialised countries, or countries that are not, historically speaking, big emitters, such as India or China.
This extreme trend also shows in sub-Saharan Africa: carbon dioxide emissions have increased dramatically over the past decades and will continue to increase in the future. The principal reason for this is the strong population growth in African countries. The economic development, which will hopefully continue in the future, is also a source for further carbon dioxide emissions. Consequently, these countries turn more and more into carbon emitters.
There is also a second aspect, one that is often disregarded. When talking about carbon dioxide emissions, the topic of conventional emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels often comes up. In that regard, sub-Saharan Africa is not a big carbon emitter at present. But when we take into account those carbon dioxide emissions that are the result of the disappearance of carbon sinks – for example forests, which bind carbon dioxide and reduce its concentration in the atmosphere – then we can see that there are some sub-Saharan countries that are already on the same emission level as a medium-sized European country.
Do developing countries suffer more from climate change than industrialised countries?
These days, people are experiencing extreme weather phenomena all over the planet. Let us just think of the exceptionally hot summer of 2018 in Europe, as well as the droughts and forest fires in the United States. There are extreme weather phenomena occurring everywhere in the world, and the developing and emerging countries of the Global South are no exception here. The difference is that we can simply water our gardens some more, and we can buy fans or turn on our air conditions. Regarding climate change, greater wealth also means more and better possibilities to adapt to negative effects of said change.
Our research is focused on countries that are traditionally considered developing countries. We largely follow the definition of the OECD, which is clearly based on the issue of income: if the per-capita income of a country is below a certain level, the country is considered a developing country. When we look at this with respect to climate change, we notice that it is indeed a relevant category, because income is, in fact, a strong indicator for the potential to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Another important factor is that people in developing countries are much more dependent on agriculture, which is affected to a great extent by extreme weather phenomena. Here in Germany, the agricultural sector contributes one percent to the GDP, while in many states of the Global South, that sector is the largest employer.
“The current situation threatens the forests”
Despite the noticeable consequences, the countries of the Global South produce more and more carbon dioxide. Their research is predominantly concerned with energy access. What sources of energy do the people in developing countries use at the moment?
When hearing the term “energy access”, most people think of electricity at first. Currently, one billion people have no access to electricity. But an even more important issue is the use of energy for cooking. That is why one of our main research fields is cooking energy. Three billion people on the planet use biomass, such as firewood and charcoal, for cooking, especially in developing countries. In some regions of the Global South, charcoal is a major cause for deforestation; particularly in the cities it is used for cooking. In consequence, the current situation threatens the forests. Another contributing factor is the massive population growth that goes hand in hand with urbanisation. In the future, this will put further pressure on the forests. Over the next years, we want to research in detail in how far the factor of cooking energy is harmful to the forests. By now, we have access to very good satellite images on which we can see where and how many trees are felled, and thus study how that is connected to traditional energy demand.
Furthermore, traditional energy generation also has negative effects on people in areas where charcoal and especially firewood are used for cooking. On the one hand, searching and gathering firewood requires a tremendous amount of time. On the other hand, these technologies are very dirty, as they pollute the air during the cooking process and hence pose severe health risks. The World Health Organization estimates that the air pollution caused by the use of these fuels leads to up to 3 million premature deaths per annum. Ultimately, this causes more deaths than HIV or malaria.
With regard to cooking energy, are there alternatives to biomass that could protect the climate and people’s health?
Electricity and liquid gas could be possible options here. Even though these fuels are considered the best solution by the international community, they also have their limitations, especially in rural areas. People either do not have any access to electricity, or if they do, the access is neither reliable nor stable. Electric cookers need lots of energy, and if everybody turned up their stoves at noon or in the evening, it could result in severe problems with the regulation of the power grid. That is why there are hardly any households in sub-Saharan Africa that cook with electricity, except for a small number in cities or countries such as South Africa or Namibia. In rural areas, people rely almost exclusively on traditional energy generation. One major problem in these regions is that the supply chain for liquid gas often does not reach remote villages. Furthermore, liquid gas is distributed in relatively large cylinders, which are quite expensive. Compared to a bundle of firewood, liquid gas is a great financial effort.
The international community tries to establish clean solutions, for example cooking with liquid gas, and also attempts to remove barriers such as infrastructural deficiencies. At the same time, efforts are made to increase the efficiency of cookers that use firewood or charcoal. These are technologies that we have already known for many decades: improved stoves that continue to use biomass as fuel but are much more sustainable. Some are able to use less fuel to produce the same amount of food, others can simultaneously reduce air pollution thanks to a cleaner combustion process. These stoves are not particularly expensive; the cheapest models can be bought for about ten euros. For the time being, they could serve as some kind of transitioning technology. So, there are measures that can reduce climate change, decrease poverty and benefit people’s health. At best, we could kill two birds with one stone.
Using less fuels saves time and money, improves health, and protects the climate. Do these efficient cookers spread like wildfire?
The reality looks somewhat different. In urban areas, the distribution works really well: There, people use these stoves because by saving fuel, they also save money, and the investment pays off in the long run. In rural areas, it is more difficult because people often do not buy firewood for cooking purposes but collect it. Of course, the new stove would save time. But when I imagine not having any money, but a lot of time, then I would rather continue to collect firewood instead of making the big investment of getting a new stove. That is at least one explanation why it is still difficult today to distribute those stoves on a larger scale.
We found other possible explanations after we conducted a study in several villages in Senegal, where we investigated people’s willingness to pay for those cookers. We and the Senegalese researchers found out that the willingness to pay is actually high enough to cover the market price of the stoves. But in reality, people do not buy them. This raises another research question: what is the reason for that? Is it poor information policy? Or the fact that possible suppliers do not have enough money to rent trucks in order to drive to the small villages and sell the stoves? We are currently researching these issues with a study in which we attempt to reduce the aforementioned obstacles. Subsequently, we can find out whether the local population then accepts the technology and its distribution.
“In that sense, Germany is also a developing country that has to evolve further”
A little money can have a great impact in developing countries. Should we then focus especially on the non-industrialised countries when it comes to climate protection?
There is a change in the main goals of the United Nations, which used to be called Millennium Development Goals, and are now termed Sustainable Development Goals. All countries in this world commit themselves to develop further. Accordingly, these goals also apply to countries such as Germany. In that sense, Germany is also a developing country that has to evolve further. Climate change is such an enormous challenge. When individual players say “I do not feel responsible”, it becomes more and more difficult to meet this challenge. If we, the global community, want to achieve something, then everybody should contribute.
Nevertheless, it is only reasonable to think about the most efficient ways to do something about climate change. That means: Where does a single invested Euro have the most impact? In industrialised countries, we often have to spend large sums of money in order to save just one more ton of carbon. In the countries of the Global South, the same amount of money can be used much more effectively.
Could non-industrialised countries skip the age of fossil fuels if they were subsidised in the production of sustainable energies?
This is a goal which the international community officially funds with a great deal of money. The great hope is that the now developing countries can adopt the technologies which the industrialised countries have already developed, especially when it comes to energy generation. Industrial technologies such as coal-fired power plants used to be big polluters here. Those could be skipped and the power could be generated entirely through renewable energies. However, in many developing countries the energy demand is immense, and I do not see a course of development that would be entirely carbon neutral. Asian countries in particular still continue to build big coal-fired power plants. Those are also being developed in sub-Saharan Africa. In consequence, those hopes are radically different from reality. Development banks do not necessarily only finance big solar power stations, but also fossil power plants.
Why is that?
This is an interesting question, and there are different attempts at an explanation: Firstly, fossil power plants are a reliable technology that can even be operated without major risks in the countries of the Global South. Here in Germany, we also have difficulties managing the energy transition, feeding renewable energies into our grid and regulating them. It does not surprise me that African countries settle for coal-fired power plants, a much simpler technology. In addition, renewable energies are often more capital-intensive, and in countries with higher investment risks and difficult access to credits, this leads to little to no investments. Of course, developing countries do not start at the same point as, for example, Germany did in the 19th century. During the electrification in Germany, 100 percent of the generated energy came from coal-fired power plants. That will not happen in any African country, as all countries endeavour to create power from renewable energies. However, renewable energies are not expanded to an extent that would be necessary to skip the fossil age entirely.
Dr Maximiliane Sievert is deputy head of the research group “Climate Change in Developing Countries” at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research. The research team studies cost-effective strategies to reduce climate change and how the population in developing countries can adapt better to a changing environment. Dr Sievert specialises in energy accesses and their effects on poverty.