March 11, 2022 Some Leaders in the Developing World Want Out of the Clean Energy Transition

Nigerian Chairman of Oil and Gas Free Zones Authority Timipre Sylva attends the "Saudi Green Initiative" forum, in the capital Riyadh on October 23, 2021. Sylva made comments this week that his country should be left out of the global clean energy transition. Credit: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images

Energy leaders from some developing countries in Africa and Asia, many of which have economies that heavily rely on fossil fuel extraction, are once again asking that their nations be left out of the push to transition the world to renewable energy. It’s a situation that raises questions over what a “just transition” should look like and whether wealthy countries, which are historically responsible for the majority of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, are pulling their fair share of weight in that effort.

At CERAWeek—the annual global energy conference hosted in Houston this week—leaders from Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia reiterated that their countries are least responsible for climate change, and that expecting them to transition to clean energy at this point would be unfair and detrimental to their economies’ development.

“We are still in transition from firewood to gas,” Timipre Sylva, Nigeria’s oil minister, said at the conference. “Please allow us to continue with our own transition.”

“They want all of us, including those of us without food, to carry the burden of transition,” Bala Wunti, general manager of the country’s state-owned oil company, added.

The comments highlight just how complicated the debate over transitioning the world to renewable energy has become and signals that issues surrounding that debate could drive a real wedge into next year’s global climate talks in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt.

Nigeria, like a handful of other developing nations in Africa, Asia and South America, is highly dependent on fossil fuels for revenue. But there’s another issue that affects more countries: Some 900 million people in the world, most of them in Africa, still have no access to energy for basic needs, Sylva said. Many leaders don’t want to be constrained in their ability to supply power to their populations from the cheapest, most reliable options, including in cases where that option would be natural gas.

Countries like the United States, Canada and Russia have long benefited economically from their exports of fossil fuels. But poorer countries that haven’t had the same opportunity to tap the oil reserves beneath their own lands for profit, such as Malaysia, Ghana and Guyana, have said for years that they can’t be expected to give up the chance to also benefit from an oil and gas market that has helped to make so many developed countries rich.

Some African nations, like Equatorial Guinea, are highly dependent on revenues from oil and gas production and could face real financial trouble if their ability to sell those products is constrained.

Behind this is a concern that hundreds of millions of people lack access to energy, and that sub-Saharan African nations in particular account for a tiny fraction of greenhouse gas emissions, and an even smaller portion of historical emissions, said Nicholas Kusnetz, ICN’s oil and gas reporter. There’s a sense that wealthy countries pressuring less developed ones to transition away from fossil fuels, including efforts to cut off international finance for fossil fuel development, is therefore unjust, he added.

“The point is that building a handful of natural gas power plants will make a negligible impact on the climate, and any increase in emissions should be made up for by wealthy nations cutting their own,” Kusnetz said, reporting this week from the Houston conference.

Developed countries, including the United States, Canada, Japan and much of western Europe, make up just 12 percent of the global population today but are responsible for 50 percent of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 171 years. And just 38 of the world’s richest nations account for more than two-thirds of the world’s oil demand.

Yet it’s the world’s poorest countries, and particularly developing nations in the Global South, that feel the consequences of climate change the most. The small island nations of Kiribati, for example, could see as much as two thirds of its land mass swallowed by the ocean by the end of the century if the sea level rises by just 3 feet. And in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, more than 1 million people are on the brink of famine, in part because climate change is exacerbating drought conditions.

In fact, the latest IPCC report, which evaluates research around the world regarding the state of global warming, shows more clearly than ever how greenhouse gas emissions from a minority of people in developed countries are driving deadly climate extremes like heat waves and droughts, while poorer Black and Brown people in developing countries disproportionately bear the impacts, including deaths, property destruction, famines and displacement, ICN’s Bob Berwyn reported.

Further complicating energy transition debates in many developing countries with abundant fossil fuel reserves is what economists call the “resource curse.” That’s when discovering a valuable resource like gold or oil, which should benefit residents, ends up harming the public, such as leading to conflict, corruption, poverty and poor health outcomes.

Rich nations have tried responding to these complex realities by offering to help poorer nations in their efforts to adapt to the climate crisis. In 2009, the world’s wealthiest nations pledged to give poorer nations $100 billion a year to adapt to climate change, starting in 2020. That promise, however, has so far come up short.

But on Wednesday, U.S. special envoy for climate change John Kerry said that next year would be the year the United States and other wealthy countries fulfilled their promise. “We’re just a little bit shy of it for 2022,” Kerry told members of the United Nations Security Council. “It is absolutely clear we will have it for 2023. I still think we can get it for 2022.”

That’s it this week for Today’s Climate. Thanks for reading and I’ll be back in your inbox next Tuesday.

(Nicholas Kusnetz contributed to this report)