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Why climate activists must accept the poor’s growing need for energy

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

Knowing that rallying works, and that global warming will eventually be stopped by the flourishing climate movement, Ralf Bodelier is offering activists some advice.

Climate rally in Maastricht, Netherlands. (Photo: Vincent M.A. Janssen/Pexels)

It’s been heartwarming to see millions across the world protest against further global warming and demand that politicians finally establish policies that work. I’ve joined several climate marches in the Netherlands.

These protests always remind me of the time, almost 40 years ago, when I joined millions across the globe to protest against nuclear weapons. From over 70,000, the number of nuclear weapons has dropped to just under 13,000 today. While this is still too many to justify, the spectacular decrease shows that efforts do pay off.

This time, too, we will ultimately succeed. Global greenhouse gas emissions will fall. Eventually, we will get climate change – or at the minimum, its consequences – under control. By standing up now with so many, we feel we are not alone. And by taking action ourselves, we inspire countless others. Perhaps next time they may also join in.

I am not writing this just for encouragement. I would like to draw attention to a subject not sufficiently discussed at climate rallies. And that is the modern energy needs of hundreds of millions of extremely poor people worldwide. Such people are not only the most vulnerable to vagaries of climate – to droughts, storms, floods and heatwaves – but also have the fewest resources available to protect themselves.

Like us, they need dykes, storm surge barriers and early warning systems. The poorest, too, long for irrigation and drainage, moisture and drought-resistant crops, sturdy houses, and hospitals with reliable cooling for medicines. They will only get all that with access to far more energy. In poor countries, the production of energy needs to be massively increased.

Within just 20 years, global energy production will have to increase by at least 30%, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

By the time the millions marching against climate change had switched on the lights, taken a shower, boiled water for a cup of tea and checked our social media, we had already consumed more energy than the one billion people who do not have a socket today.

And these one billion are not the only ones. By 2060, there will be two billion more people on Earth – most of them in Africa. These people all aspire to the same standard of living as you and I. Within just 20 years, global energy production will have to increase by at least 30%, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). Ideally, we should manage this without any additional CO2 emissions.

Of course, we will not be thrown off course by these figures. But it is important to keep a close eye on the scale of the challenge we’re facing. And it’s encouraging to know that some of our increasing energy needs are already met by electricity from solar panels and wind turbines.

Unfortunately, it is also still the case that most of the world’s energy needs are met by the burning of wood, gas, oil and coal. The growing production of energy from sun and wind is simply not keeping up with the even faster-growing demand for energy.

What doesn’t help is that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. In such moments, we may use hydropower, or, if that’s not around, fall back on biomass and fossil fuels. As a result, global CO2 emissions continue to rise. And that is discouraging news.

We, wealthy Europeans, can do with less and still live decent lives. But the billions of people who are poor will want to get ahead.

How can we tackle both problems simultaneously? Solve climate change and meet the desire for modern energy in the poorest parts of the world? Allow me a few suggestions.

First of all, don’t let panic be our guide. Addressing climate change cannot wait, but it’s counter-productive to say we have only 5, 10 or 15 years. Such alarmism may lead to irrational and dangerous decisions, such as the outright banning of all fossil fuels, which would make things even worse for the poorest people. We must do what is in their best interest.

Secondly, we should rule out some worn-out solutions, such as the idea that we can solve climate change by consuming less. For us wealthy Europeans, this may not be such a bad idea. We can do with less and still live decent lives. But the billions of people who are poor will want to get ahead. And rightly so. Those who live in a village in India or a slum in Malawi also hope for decent transport, lighting and air conditioning, for a fridge, a microwave and a smartphone.

Equally outdated is the idea that we can only manage with solar, wind, geothermal or tidal energy. We also need, for example, nuclear energy. Like energy from the sun and wind, nuclear does not emit CO2. Worldwide, 10% of our electricity is now generated by nuclear power; this can and must be increased to 20 or 30%.

Just as worn-out is the idea that we must disregard some technologies because they do not structurally put an end to the burning of fossil fuels. I am thinking of the capture, storage and reuse of CO2 from coal and natural gas power stations. If we really want to curb climate change, we must use all instruments.

Thirdly, we must invest much more in ‘adaptation’ to make our surroundings ready to deal with a changing climate, such as by building higher dykes and planting more mangrove forests to protect coasts. Adaptation also includes helping farmers in poor countries with fertilisers, climate-proof crops and storm-proof infrastructure.

The poorest in Africa and Asia, in particular, will benefit from a rational look at what works and what doesn’t.

Like the proponents of CO2 capture and storage, adaptationists often hear: ‘we’ll just keep burning fossil fuels’. Of course, that is not at all the intention. But it is realistic to accept that we will not be rid of fossil fuels for some time to come.

Moreover, adaptation works. After all, people have always adapted. We design storm surge barriers and dig retention basins. We make dry areas wet and wet areas dry. We build houses, factories and schools that can withstand storms and floods. How well adaptation works can be seen from the ever-decreasing number of climate-related deaths. A hundred years ago, 0.5 million people out of a world population of less than 2 billion died each year from droughts, heatwaves, floods and storms. Last year, out of 7.6 billion people, less than 10,000 died from climate change. That is a reduction of more than 95%.

The poorest in Africa and Asia, in particular, will benefit from a rational look at what works and what doesn’t. They will benefit from us dropping ideas that may work for us, but aren’t suitable for them. And they will benefit from more focus on adaptation. Droughts, heatwaves, floods and storms will continue to occur. And again and again, it is the poorest who are worst affected.

By acknowledging the growing need for energy in poor and upcoming countries, we can help them a great deal. Next time we rally for a better climate policy, shall we campaign for such a future as well?

Ralf Bodelier is a Netherlands-based cosmopolitan, journalist and philosopher who lived in Malawi for many years. He organises inspirational journeys to Jerusalem, Vienna and the cemeteries of Paris.


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