Western Nations Are Climate Hypocrites, Emitting More Carbon in a Week Than Many Countries Do in a Year

So should we complain when others want to rise out of energy poverty?

Three-stone cooking in Africa
Wouldn't burning gas be healthier and greener than this?.

Isa Sora / Getty Images

The world has two energy problems: one for the rich who burn too much and one for the poor who have too little. Euan Ritchie, a policy analyst at the Center for Global Development Europe, put it more bluntly and accused the U.S. and Britain of climate hypocrisy for emitting tons of carbon per capita but complaining about energy projects in countries where most people live in energy poverty.

"Underpinning this discussion should be an acknowledgment that there is vast inequality in energy use, and CO2 emissions, between richer and poorer countries. Just a few days of life in the U.S. produces more emissions than people in many low-income countries produce in the entire year." 
Climate Hypocrisy

Center for Global Development

Ritchie produced a calendar where he demonstrates that an average American emits more carbon by the end of New Year's Day than a person in the Democratic Republic of Congo does in a year. By the 9th day of the year, the American has emitted more than a Kenyan has in a year.

Ritchie complains that at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), donor countries pledged they would not finance any more fossil fuel development in low-income countries (LICs), even though a few gas pipelines would raise their standard of living and reduce their energy poverty, with a tiny addition to global emissions.

"This hypocrisy has been noticed by several leaders of the Global South. These high-income donor countries could have a greater impact by pledging to eliminate their own fossil fuel use. This would also save a lot more money: these countries collectively spent around $56 billion on subsidising production or consumption of fossil fuels, whereas stopping development finance for fossil fuel projects will reportedly save $19 billion. It may be politically more difficult, but climate action should begin at home."

Hypocrisy is a subject we talk about a lot on Treehugger—contributor Sami Grover even wrote a book titled "We’re All Climate Hypocrites Now." In my own book, "Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle," I noted that "any fair and equitable division of the carbon budget has to allow headroom for those suffering from energy poverty to get a little more of it."

Energy poverty is pink

Our World in Data

The pink bubbles from the Our World in Data graphic above shows those in energy poverty versus the blue bubbles where carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are way too high. But Ritchie's claims that LICs should get funding for building fossil fuel projects raised some questions and concerns.

I asked him: "It is true that much of the world is way below the 2.5 tonnes of emissions per capita average that we have to get to and that the rich North has to bear the brunt of reductions. But if we are going to help raise LICs out of energy poverty, should the investment not be in alternatives that are carbon-free, like renewable electricity, instead of getting more people locked into gas?"

Ritchie responded:

"My view is that, where possible, yes, LICs should choose a cleaner path than rich northerners did. And I believe they have, with many generating most of their power from renewables (Kenya springs to mind as an example). But where there are technological/cost barriers that mean that a 100% renewables model isn’t feasible (such as storage costs, intermittency, etc), then we should not be taking a hard line against some use of natural gas given the hundreds of millions with no access to electricity. I haven’t come across anyone who thinks this is possible on any reasonable timeframe (if you have, please do share; I’d be interested to hear the arguments)."
 Dealing with climate change is obviously urgent, but so is tackling energy poverty in LICs. Limited use of natural gas in such countries will have a tiny impact on the former (easily offset with more ambitious policies from countries such as U.K./U.S.), but could have a huge impact on the latter. Especially since increasing access to power and standards of living will almost certainly help countries cope with the impact of climate change."
 There is also a question about what is getting displaced. In the U.K., much of our (limited) progress in recent decades has been replacing coal with natural gas. If we hadn’t had this option, it is very unlikely that the coal would have instead been replaced by renewables; rather, coal would have been more prevalent for longer. This may also be the case for many LICs, especially those using dirty cooking fuels that also cause many premature deaths each year."

One could argue about many of these points, including whether in the United Kingdom it was a good thing to get locked into natural gas as they are now in almost every home. But one cannot argue with the fact that dirty cooking fuels shorten the lives of millions or that we are indeed being hypocritical in the rich West. I put the question to our expert on hypocrisy, Grover, who responded:

"I am really not qualified to speak on the feasibility of a 100% leapfrog for development, with zero fossil fuel spending. But there absolutely is a solid case to be made that we as a society are much more comfortable targeting money spent and policies enacted elsewhere than we are on doing what needs to be done at home. So the hypocrisy angle is a valid criticism. That means we absolutely need to spend more time and effort abroad to make sure the transition is feasible—and more at home to make sure we are less hypocritical in terms of our excess consumption. Whether that would entirely negate the need for all overseas fossil fuel projects is probably not for me to say."

It is not for me to say either, although we have seen the results of natural gas "lock-in" around the world—once you are hooked up to the pipe it is pretty easy to get addicted. Also, as we saw when we first piped water into homes 150 years ago, its use went up exponentially when people no longer had to carry it.

I remain unconvinced that investing in new gas infrastructure is a good idea anywhere in the world or that the impact of it would be as small as is suggested. But Ritchie is right about us being hypocrites if we are not dealing with our own, far greater emissions first.