Getting Developing Nations on a Greener Path Without Creating a New Renewable Energy 'Colonialism'

Family and friends pose in front of a house in South Africa with a new solar heating system. Photo by Abri_Beluga via Flickr

No matter how much it might help the environment for fewer nations to produce and consume at U.S.-style levels, slowing global development would clearly be an unworkable -- and profoundly unfair -- way to address the climate crisis. As environmental scientist Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker put it this morning at a conference in Berlin: "Poor and clean countries don't want to miss their chance to get rich and dirty."

Getting developing nations to leapfrog ahead to "rich and clean," however, has its own potential pitfalls.The development of available renewable-energy technologies, such as wind, solar, and biomass, certainly needs to be "encouraged at a much higher scale to ensure that more people benefit from them," Stephen Mutimba, a sustainable-development specialist working on climate-change response strategies for Kenya and Zambia, told attendees at "The Great Transformation: Greening the Economy," a two-day event organized by the German environmental foundation Heinrich Böll Stifung.

A New Ecological Exploitation?
But since those technologies are "still very much Western technologies, [Africans] see them as a continuation of the current model -- that they are still being exploited," Mutimba added. "Industries need to be set up in those areas so the money stays in Africa."

So far, it seems much green investment in developing countries has either been of a charitable nature -- donating small-scale solar cookers or solar hot water heaters to remote villages, for example -- or, from this perspective, a potentially exploitative one. Take the massive Desertec project, for example. Though laudable for its ambitious plans to produce large quantities of electricity from solar technology, it seems problematic that the power will be generated in the Sahara desert, but used to run lights, appliances, and factories in Europe.

Reports this week that the Spanish Wind Energy Association is seeking to build new facilities in Turkey pose similar questions about how such power would be produced and who it would benefit. Will Turkey contribute only its land and sunshine, or will such investments be used to help build the renewable-energy industry in the country by establishing or boosting domestic production plants for turbines and capacity for trained Turkish personnel to build, operate, and maintain such facilities? Will all the clean power produced go back to Spain, or will some of it stay within Turkey and help reduce the country's growing domestic emissions?

Modeling, Rather than Mandating Eco-friendly Development
These, it seems, are the type of questions both potential investor and investee countries need to start asking -- and addressing -- before signing agreements for energy development. If they don't, they risk creating, as German Green Party parliamentary group chair Renate Künast put it, "a new form of colonial policy - we tell you what you have to do, and by the way, here are some technologies from us."

"[Developed countries] can't be colonial masters again telling [developing ones] what they have to do. We need to support them in developing and training their own resources so they can assume responsibility," Künast said. She added that rich nations have to model, rather than mandate, environmentally friendly development if they want to see other countries avoid the polluting traps they fell into in the past.

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Tags: Developing Nations | Energy | Renewable Energy | Solar Power | Spain | Turkey | Wind Power