Monday, October 21, 2002

Stop energy eco-imperialism

Does Anita Roddick warm her home with cow or buffalo manure? No? Then why is the Body Shop owner telling poor rural Indians that they should choose outdated and dangerous energy sources instead of the modern electricity that she and many of her do-gooder counterparts in organisations like Greenpeace use? I ask this question in the article titled Stop energy eco-imperialism was published by the International Policy Network on 20 October 2002.

Does Anita Roddick warm her home with cow or buffalo manure? No? Then why is the Body Shop owner telling poor rural Indians that they should choose outdated and dangerous energy sources instead of the modern electricity that she and many of her do-gooder counterparts in organisations like Greenpeace use?

Though British consumers have yet to make dung warming stoves the 'must have' heating source this season, Greenpeace and The Body Shop's Choose Positive Energy campaign, urges developing countries to 'Choose Positive Energy' since 'Oil, coal and gas cannot meet the needs of the poorest, but √ępositive' or renewable energy can. Renewable energy technologies are the most appropriate, affordable, reliable and environmentally friendly.'

European governments, third-world bureaucrats, businesses such as The Body Shop and the European Wind Energy Association, and NGOs such as Greenpeace, have decided that "renewable energy" and "clean development" are the future for third world countries. At the World Summit on Sustainable Development, this coalition lobbied for renewable energy targets. These same groups will also be attending this week's United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change meetings in Delhi, to discuss actions by governments to avoid the risk of a warmer climate in about 100 years.

But while the coalition focuses on preventing the hypothetical, long-run risk of climate change, they have conspicuously ignored the real risks that poor people face today. The immediate need of poor people in India and other poor countries is to consume more energy, in any form. Likewise, India's economy needs reliable, cheap energy of any kind to fuel economic growth and improved quality of life.

It is estimated that about 95 percent of India's rural population already relies on one form of renewable energy: biomass. Firewood, agricultural residues, or cow and buffalo manure which is made into pats, dried, and stored - all are burned inside homes in inefficient, poorly-flued stoves called chulhas, which have inadequate ventilation. Around the world, about 2 billion people rely on such fuels.

The human health, economic, and environmental impact of burning these renewable fuels is immense. Young children and women spend hours each day in the drudgery of collecting firewood or collecting, drying, and storing manure for use in cooking, heat, or light - rather than attending school or engaging in more satisfying or productive economic activity. Most homes in rural villages are not connected to an electrical grid and remain dark at night. The refrigerators, televisions, and computers that environmentalists take for granted are not to be seen here.

While environmentalists fret about the effects of air pollution caused by the burning of fossil fuels, the risk that poor people face is indoor air pollution. The World Health Organization says that indoor air pollution is linked to 4.3 million childhood deaths worldwide each year - primarily from respiratory illnesses such as pneumonia. Burning biomass also contributes to asthma and lung cancer, particularly in women.

Likewise, the unsustainable cutting of firewood on marginal lands leads to erosion and environmental degradation. The burning of wood in urban areas contributes to air pollution. If biomass were to be used for major energy production, many millions of acres of vegetation and trees would be cleared.

Energy poverty is directly related to economic poverty, and India's national and state governments have engaged in prolonging both types by inhibiting development of new energy sources, overregulating existing energy supplies, and unnecessarily intervening in energy markets.

At the same time, they have focused on promoting renewable energy, rather than cleaner forms of energy, including gas, coal, hydro, oil and nuclear. These forms of energy are far cheaper than solar and wind power in nearly all contexts and become cheaper as demand increases which would happen as India's economy develops, and as companies take advantage of economies of scale. So far, this has not happened in India.

The indirect effect of other regulations and restrictions has also impacted energy development in India. Foreign investment regulations have discouraged companies from bringing new technologies and capital to India. The legal system provides no clear enforcement of contracts, leading companies to engage in shady deals with government. The Enron scandal in Maharashtra, India, was one such example - the pure product of a company cavorting with government, characterized by a lack of transparency.

In a new working paper published by the Liberty institute, "Renewable energy sources in India: Is it viable?", Sutanu Guru, shows that government's failure to allow a free energy market means that industries install their own generating capacity because they cannot get enough energy to run their plants and factories - 'power cuts, load shedding and grid failures are common occurrences all over India.' While wealthier consumers are able to insulate themselves from erratic electricity with diesel generators, and inverters, poorer consumers simply go without electricity.

At the behest of green NGOs and international pressure, India's government and bureaucrats have decided that renewable energy is deserving of subsidies, grants, international aid money, and tax breaks. Companies that invest in "renewable" energy sources such as windmills get a 100 percent, one-year depreciation scheme from the Indian government, and a five-year income tax holiday. In Tamil Nadu during 1995-96, dozens of companies used this income tax break and accelerated depreciation to avoid paying any tax on income derived from other sources entirely.

Guru's research indicates that 'Government largesse to renewable energy is comprehensive, widespread, and highly attractive. A majority of wind energy projects in India have come up mainly to cash in on these tax breaks. Electric power generation is a secondary - and often neglected - priority.'

Reduced economic productivity, increased human suffering and loss of life, and negative environmental consequences all result from current reliance on "renewable" energy. For India's poor rural people, efficient, reliable energy remains a dream rather than a reality. Sadly, they will probably continue to suffer because of market interventions by the Indian government, and at the hands of environmental elitists from wealthy countries who believe that poor people must not have the same opportunities to grow and develop as the first world did.

This week in Delhi, third world governments should reject eco-imperialism from NGOs, first world governments, and international agencies . The poor citizens of the world have everything to gain from more energy consumption, and nothing to lose but their poverty.

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