The Poor Need More Energy: What BP Knows and Pope Francis Doesn’t

Power lines near Mumbai, India. (Punit Paranjpe/AFP/Getty)

When it comes to energy supplies — and therefore carbon dioxide emissions and climate change — who are you going to believe? Pope Francis, or BP?

Whether you love the pope and hate BP, or vice versa, doesn’t matter. What matters when discussing energy availability, climate change, and poverty are hard numbers and simple math. And the latest edition of BP’s Statistical Review of World Energy, which was released eight days before Pope Francis issued his encyclical on climate change, is chockfull of numbers that expose the pope’s failed climate math. Indeed, an analysis of the two documents reveals the deep, and perhaps unbridgeable, chasm between the religiosity that pervades discussions about climate change and the hard truths about the energy sector.

There is much to admire about Pope Francis. His humility — “Who am I to judge?” — has made him a revered leader of the world’s Catholics. But his new encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’ (Be praised), shows a shallow understanding of global energy use and, in particular, of how energy consumption is soaring among the people he claims to care most about: the poor. The effects of climate change “will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades,” the document says. “Many of the poor live in areas particularly affected by phenomena related to warming.”

RELATED: Laudato Si’ and the Common Good

That may be true. But if developing countries are going to prepare for possible changes in the climate, they will have to get richer so they can afford to deal with any calamities that may occur. And how will they get richer? The answer is obvious: by consuming more energy. And for countries throughout the developing world, the lowest-cost energy is still coal.

The latest numbers from the BP Statistical Review — which has been published since 1951 and is one of the most authoritative sources for data on global energy production and consumption — show that over the past decade, coal use in India has doubled. In Indonesia, it nearly has tripled.

Why is coal use rising? The short answer: It’s playing a pivotal role in meeting booming electricity demand throughout the developing world. Over the past decade, global coal use has risen by 33 percent while electricity use has jumped by almost the same amount: 28 percent, with nearly all of that growth occurring in developing countries.

RELATED: The Pope’s Encyclical, at Heart, Is About Us, Not Trees and Snail Darters

The International Energy Agency calls electricity “crucial to human development.” And yet, India alone has more than 300 million people who have no access to electricity. The encyclical laments the issue of “water poverty” and says that “greater scarcity of water will lead to an increase in the cost of food.” But the pope doesn’t acknowledge that we will need to use more energy if potable water is to be made more available.

If developing countries are going to prepare for possible changes in the climate, they will have to get richer so they can afford to deal with any calamities that may occur. And they will get richer by consuming more energy.

The papal document contains other troubling statements: “The exploitation of the planet has already exceeded acceptable limits,” for example, and “the earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production.” But the encyclical doesn’t spell out who determines what “acceptable limits” are. And the idea that humans have “plundered” the earth smacks more of Greenpeace or Earth First! than of the Vatican.

The encyclical lauds renewable energy but fails to recognize the vanishingly small role that solar and wind are currently playing. In 2014, according to BP, solar provided about 845,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day, and wind energy about 3.2 million barrels of oil equivalent per day.

RELATED: The Encyclical’s Challenge Is to Climate-Change Activists, Not Skeptics

For comparison, consider that hydrocarbons (coal, oil, and natural gas) provided a total of 224 million barrels of oil equivalent per day, roughly 56 times what came from solar and wind combined. Hydrocarbons now provide 86 percent of all global energy. According to BP, that’s only slightly less than the 94 percent share they had in 1965. The reality is that energy transitions happen over decades, or even centuries. The continued endurance of coal — a fuel that’s been in common industrial use for two centuries — provides proof of that. In the words of climate scientist James Hansen, believing that renewable energy can rapidly supplant hydrocarbons is akin to “believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”

The encyclical is silent on nuclear energy’s role in providing low-carbon electricity, ignoring some of the world’s leading climate scientists (including Hansen) have said that “continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability” to deal with climate change.

EDITORIAL: Laudato No: Praise Not Pope Francis’s Crude Economics

The encyclical fails to acknowledge that climate change is only one issue among many that we must address. The more pressing issue is poverty and what must be done to get more energy to more people so they can escape poverty. In a world in which some 1.3 billion people still lack access to electricity, we have to move beyond the myopic belief that all hydrocarbons (and therefore most carbon dioxide emissions) are bad. If we are going to cope with more-extreme weather events in the future — regardless of their cause — we are going to need a lot more energy, not less.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis calls for a “bold cultural revolution” to combat what he says is an “ecological crisis.” But by ignoring the magnitude and importance of the energy sector, he has missed an opportunity to recognize that energy availability is essential to human fulfillment and freedom.

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