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Climate Follies in the Developing World

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Climate Follies in the Developing World

Namibia’s planned energy transition would immiserate the country, while contributing virtually zero to global emissions reductions. December 22, 2022
Infrastructure and energy

Namibia’s natural beauty, stark desert landscapes, wonderful people, and fascinating flora and fauna can remind an American of the Southwest. To know the country is to wish for its success. Right now, the biggest obstacle to that success is climate change—not its first-order effects but the roadblocks policymakers are erecting in the name of combating them.

Home to about 2.7 million people, yet occupying an area roughly the size of Washington, Oregon, and California combined, Namibia boasts natural resources galore. Keeping the economy afloat are a rich coastal fishery; mining of diamonds, uranium, zinc, and rare-earth metals; and tourism, supported by game parks, scenery, and hunting. By African standards, the country is a success, with a stable government and a per capita GDP of about $8,900. Still, wealth is unevenly distributed: Namibia has the second-highest Gini index in the world, and the very poor are mostly subsistence farmers who do not participate in the cash economy.

As with most developing countries, Namibia’s population is growing. Fertility stands at 3.22, well above the replacement rate, though below the African average. The population is young, and unemployment high (roughly 38 percent). Among those lucky enough to have work, roughly 60 percent labor in the service sector. To keep pace with this demographic change, the productive sectors of the economy—manufacturing, mining, and natural resources—must grow. Yet GDP growth currently hovers around zero to slightly negative, and per capita GDP has declined by about 10 percent over the last two years.

Growth requires energy, and rapid growth requires abundant energy. But Namibia’s per capita energy consumption rate is about 30 million kilojoules per person per year, roughly one-tenth of that in the U.S. Domestic energy production—about 90 percent of it from hydroelectric dams on the rivers bordering the country—can meet only about one-fourth of present demand. The rest must be imported, which costs money, hinders economic development, and holds the country hostage to political turmoil in South Africa and Zimbabwe, its largest energy suppliers.

Namibia can expand its domestic energy sector. Fossil fuels account for only 6 percent of Namibia’s total energy consumption, all of which must be imported. Off Namibia’s southern coast, however, lie enough reserves of natural gas to power its economy for roughly two centuries at the present energy-consumption rate. Exploration in the eastern part of the country has identified promising oil deposits. Accounting for fracking would probably increase estimates of proven reserves.

Such economic development is unlikely, however, as long as the country follows green imperatives. Namibia is a signatory to both the Kyoto Accords and the Paris Agreements, which oblige participants to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. The country has formulated an ambitious plan, committing itself to a 90 percent reduction of its carbon emissions by 2027 and to reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Achieving those goals, though, would have no discernible effect on the global carbon budget. Namibia presently accounts for just 0.003 percent of global carbon-dioxide emissions. A 90 percent reduction of carbon emissions would lower Namibia’s share to 0.0003 percent.

If it so chose, Namibia could develop its own fossil-fuel resources to provide the cheap and abundant power it needs. It could, for example, increase its per capita carbon emissions tenfold (which would bring it up to the level of Bermuda, the Czech Republic, and Russia), while having no significant effect on the global carbon budget. Instead, the Namibian government has aggressively expanded solar and wind energy, which presently account for 0.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively, of the country’s total generating capacity. Though these technologies don’t emit carbon, they leave their own environmental footprints, are risky and expensive to develop, and face possibly insurmountable obstacles to implementation worldwide.

Is this policy prudent? Only if it’s funded by someone else’s money. Under the Green Climate Fund (GCF) of the Paris Accords, developed-world governments and corporations pay into a fund that redistributes the money to “support developing countries raise and realize their . . . ambitions towards low-emissions, climate-resilient pathways.” Though the GCF initially intended to redistribute $100 billion annually, it has fallen far short of its goals, having pried only about $10 billion out of the developed nations. Even so, the funds constitute a substantial source of revenue for developing countries.

Namibia currently receives $110 million annually from the GCF. That sum can offset about 11 percent of Namibia’s current trade imbalance. And when money from other “green” investments are counted, the balance sheet becomes even rosier. The French Development Agency, for example, contributes an additional $31 million to green projects in Namibia. The German government also contributes to various projects, including $5 million to build a rural desalination plant to be powered by wind and solar.

Namibia channels its GCF funds through a local government entity, the Environmental Investment Fund (EIF). The EIF distributes the funds to various climate activist groups, which then distribute them to their pet projects. Since the EIF is a government entity, its funding decisions must conform to Namibia’s climate policy. One of these programs, Empower to Adapt, has distributed $10 million to 19 sub-projects, all of which must use some form of climate buzzword in their description. Empower to Adapt exists “to reduce vulnerability and increase resilience of intended beneficiaries through climate smart agriculture practices to ensure food security.” The main activities, though, seem to be meetings, site visits, and ceremonies. Considerable effort was directed to raising “climate-change awareness,” which included writing newspaper articles, arranging radio interviews, running advertising campaigns, and composing jingles. Much attention was paid to “gender mainstreaming,” clearly under grave threat from climate change. The report claims impressive results, with “recorded impacts” reaching more than 73,000 beneficiaries. But the awareness campaign, at least, was ineffective: a recent survey showed that only 5 percent of respondents were aware that their government even had a climate-change policy.

The contradiction of Namibia’s climate policy can be resolved with a simple observation: climate policy is not about climate change but about securing climate revenues. If throttling the country’s fossil-fuel sector is the price to keep that money flowing, so be it. Never mind that it will do nothing to “fight climate change.”

Photo by BRIGITTE WEIDLICH/AFP via Getty Images