Politics & Policy

Keeping the Poor in the Dark

Concept drawing of the Thai Binh 2 power plant.
They want to produce electricity from coal, and the developed world says no.

Keep the poor in the dark: That’s the aim of some of the world’s biggest and most influential environmental groups. And last month, both the U.S. Export-Import Bank and the World Bank helped advance it. Out of concern for climate change, they announced, they would restrict financing for coal-fired power plants.

On July 18, the Ex-Im Bank’s board of directors voted to halt U.S. financing for the Thai Binh 2 power plant, a 1,200-megawatt coal-fired facility in northern Vietnam. Two days earlier, the World Bank said that it would limit financing of coal-fired generation projects to “rare circumstances.”


The groups that opposed the Vietnamese project include Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace USA, Pacific Environment, the Center for International Environmental Law, and the Center for Biological Diversity. In a letter to President Obama, they protested that the Thai Binh project would “emit unacceptable air pollution that will worsen climate disruption.”

#ad#Vietnam, population 92 million, currently has about 26,000 megawatts of installed generation capacity. Last year, it produced just 120 terawatt-hours of electricity. Compare that with Germany, which has a smaller population — 81 million — but more than six times as much generation capacity (153,000 megawatts). In 2012, Germany produced about 610 terawatt-hours of electricity, five times as much as Vietnam. That electric use translates almost directly into GDP. Germany’s is $3.25 trillion. That is almost ten times as great as Vietnam’s GDP of $326 billion. And it’s no coincidence that Germany — which, by the way, is building 11,000 megawatts of new coal-fired power plants — is emitting about six times as much carbon dioxide (815 million tons last year) as is Vietnam (130 million tons in 2012).

Love coal or hate it, the fuel has become the go-to source of energy for the developing world because it is cheap and abundant. In addition, deposits are widely dispersed geographically and they are not controlled by any OPEC-like entities. It’s also an excellent fuel for generating electricity. Small wonder, then, that coal continues to be the world’s fastest-growing energy source. Last year, global coal use jumped by the equivalent of 2 million barrels of oil burned per day. That’s three times the growth seen in non-hydro renewables (solar, wind, biomass, and geothermal), which grew by 600,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. It also exceeded the growth in both oil (up by 900,000 barrels per day) and natural gas (up by nearly 1.5 million barrels of oil equivalent per day).

The fundamental difference between rich countries like Germany and the U.S. and poor countries like Vietnam and Pakistan (which, by the way, has a population of 193 million and just 23,500 megawatts of electricity-generation capacity) is the availability of cheap, abundant, reliable electricity.

That electricity is essential to modernity is incontrovertible. The rich countries of the West developed their economies by producing electricity from coal. Now the rest of the world wants to do the same. And yet, the environmental elites are determined to prevent that from happening.

Many of those same elites are cloaking their rhetoric in moral terms. In late June, Ken Berlin, a lawyer and leader of the “Energy & Environment Team,” a group set up to promote Obama’s climate-change agenda, sent out a list of talking points to be used by Obama’s supporters. The first one: “We have a moral obligation to future generations to leave them a planet that’s not polluted and damaged by carbon pollution.”

And now, as evidenced by the recent moves by the Ex-Im and World Bank, we have adopted a policy that it’s better for the world’s poor to continue living in the darkness and destitution that always comes with energy poverty than for them to be damaged by “carbon pollution.”

If that’s a moral stand, then I’m Jack the Ripper.

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

Robert Bryce is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the producer of the forthcoming documentary Juice: How Electricity Explains the World.

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