Politics & Policy

Green Dreams in America, Coal in Africa

Obama aims to decrease “carbon pollution” in the U.S., but the dark continent needs coal.

Africans can burn coal. Americans can’t.

That’s the conclusion to be drawn from the Obama administration’s most recent forays into energy policy.

On June 25, President Obama was at Georgetown University decrying “carbon pollution” and making it clear that he will prohibit any new coal-fired power plants from being built in the U.S. Five days later, while Obama was in Africa, the White House released a fact sheet on its “Power Africa” initiative that aims to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa by helping finance some 10,000 megawatts of new generation capacity in that region.

During his Georgetown speech, Obama used the phrase “carbon pollution” a whopping 30 times. In the document on Power Africa, that phrase doesn’t appear even once.

The contrast between Obama’s Georgetown speech and his effort to make electricity more available in Africa goes to the crux of the entire climate-change debate. Talk about cutting carbon dioxide emissions may appeal to “green” voters in rich countries where energy is cheap and abundant. It doesn’t sell in Africa or other poverty-stricken regions where energy is scarce and expensive.

In his Georgetown speech, Obama announced a “new national climate action plan” to “protect our country from the impacts of climate change,” as well as a plan to “lead the world in a coordinated assault on a changing climate.” During his remarks, the president repeatedly implied that the U.S. could, on its own, make a major difference in global carbon dioxide emissions and, therefore, in climate change. He said that voters should reward politicians based on their green quotient: “Remind everyone who represents you that . . . sheltering future generations against the ravages of climate change is a prerequisite for your vote.” He went on to say that by limiting emissions from domestic power plants, Americans “will have the satisfaction of knowing that the world we leave to our children will be better off for what we did.”

It’s hard to imagine a bigger fib. And it’s a fib that relies on the public’s near-total ignorance of the realities of global energy use, such as the soaring amounts of carbon dioxide coming from developing countries. But given Obama’s desire to do something about energy poverty in Africa, a laudable goal, let’s look at what’s happening there.

Between 2002 and 2012, the U.S. reduced its “carbon pollution” — to use Obama’s inane phrase — by 8 percent. Meanwhile, in Africa, carbon dioxide emissions rose by nearly 35 percent. Over that same time frame, U.S. coal use dropped by nearly 21 percent. In Africa, coal use jumped by 15 percent. And despite Obama’s cheery talk about “clean energy” and renewables, Africa’s coal use — indeed, Africa’s use of all forms of energy — will continue to soar.

Africa needs coal-fired capacity for electric generation because it is, in fact, the dark continent. One billion Africans now use roughly the same amount of electricity as 34 million Canadians, according to the “BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.” And while neither coal nor carbon dioxide is mentioned anywhere in the White House’s fact sheet on the Africa Power plan, it’s clear that much of the new generation planned for the region will be coal-fired.

South Africa alone has some 30 billion tons of coal reserves. Zimbabwe has another 500 million tons. Tanzania and other countries also have plentiful coal resources. And those countries are planning to build lots of coal-fired power plants. South Africa is planning more than 22,000 megawatts of new coal-fired capacity. (For reference, that’s nearly  twice as much as all of the wind-generation capacity that was installed in the U.S. in 2012.) Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Tanzania are planning a combined total of nearly 13,000 megawatts of additional coal-fired capacity.

Will natural gas play a major role in Africa’s electricity generation? Not any time soon. Although gas has played a major role in helping the U.S. cut its carbon dioxide emissions and African countries have found some major new gas fields, Obama’s White House acknowledges in the Power Africa document that the “existing infrastructure in the region” (meaning pipelines) is “inadequate” to “meet the region’s electricity-generation needs.” That’s an oblique way of saying that Africa will burn coal.

Obama and his many supporters on the green left may want to believe that the U.S. alone can solve the carbon dioxide and climate issue, but a bit of elementary math shows that that’s impossible. Between 2002 and 2012, global carbon dioxide emissions rose by 8.4 billion tons. Over that time frame, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions (5.8 billion tons last year) could have gone to zero and yet global carbon dioxide emissions still would have increased. In fact, over that same period, carbon dioxide emissions from Asia alone grew by nearly 7.4 billion tons. Thus, as the latest BP data shows, just the increase in Asia’s carbon dioxide emissions exceeds the total emissions from both North America (6.9 billion tons in 2012) and Europe (7 billion tons).

Global carbon dioxide emissions will continue rising rapidly because the world needs energy. Projections from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that by 2035, global energy use will rise by about 50 percent, to some 370 million barrels of oil equivalent per day. Nearly all of that growth in energy demand will occur in developing countries, and the vast majority of that demand will be met with hydrocarbons.

The punch line here is obvious: Unless or until there is a fuel source that can produce electricity at a price that is cheaper than that produced from coal, global carbon dioxide emissions will continue to soar.

If Obama is truly interested in turning on more lights in Africa and truly interested in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, he’s going to have to move beyond the sloganeering and toward a global effort to make cleaner electricity production a lot cheaper.

That means embracing the only low-carbon fuels that are both affordable and able to make a significant dent in the gargantuan amount of energy that the world will need to produce in the future. That means natural gas and nuclear.

— Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Power Hungry: The Myths of “Green” Energy and the Real Fuels of the Future.