Fossil Fuels - Pros and Cons

The following is a radio segment from Australia's ABC Radio National Breakfast on March 20th, 2015. Bjorn Lomborg was on set discussing his call for abolishing global fossil fuel subsidies. The original article and radio segment can be found at the link below. 

ABC Interviewer – Bjorn Lomborg first grabbed world attention in 1998 as ‘the sceptical environmentalist’, questioning global action on climate change.

He’s currently in Australia, this is his fourth visit, this time to talk about global poverty and development, more so than just climate issues.

In recent years, he’s been an advocate for using cheap fossil fuels to alleviate poverty. He now says, abolishing $548 billion dollars of global fossil fuel subsidies would be a ‘smart’, sustainable development goal for the United Nations to adopt later this year.

Bjorn Lomborg is the direct of Copenhagen Consensus Centre, he joins us in our studio this morning, Bjorn welcome back to breakfast.

Bjorn Lomborg – Good morning friend.

ABC Interviewer – Can I start with Cyclone Pam, the tropical cyclone that tragically hit Vanuatu last week, killing at least 11 people, displacing missing 70% of the islands population. The Vanuatu President, Baldwin Lonsdale, warned that soon after that the cyclone hit, the climate change is contributing to more extreme weather events. Do you have view on that? Do you agree with that? 

Bjorn Lomborg – Well I mean, you have to look at what would actually help people from Vanuatu and many other places, and the simple answer is if we try to cut carbon missions, which we for many other reasons should try to do because global warming is a real problem, one we want to fix. There’s not actually in any way the most effective way to help people that are vulnerable to climate catastrophes, the simple answer is if you want to help people not being hurt by many different natural disasters, it’s much more about lifting them out of poverty So if you look at hurricanes, for instance, hitting Guatemala and many other places where people are poor, you see traumatic damages. Of course, where it hit Florida, yes of course you still see lots material damages, but there much lower in terms of percent of GDP, much, much lower in terms lives lost.

ABC Interviewer – This fits in something you wrote last month, if you want to help poor people who are most threatened by natural disasters, we have to recognize that it’s less about cutting carbon emissions and pulling them out of poverty, the OECD recently estimates around 1/3 of global development aid is related to climate change. So your saying that’s too much, we are spending the money in the wrong place, but what about helping these communities that are in the path of these natural disasters, these major weather events with adaptation, so that they don’t get wiped out with mitigation so that things do change.

Bjorn Lomborg – Oh of course we need to help them especially with mitigation again, but the question is how much will mitigation of that cutting carbon emissions , how much will that help Vanuatu citizens even 10, 20, 30 even 40 years down the line and the answer is very, very little. Also remember, if you ask people themselves, this is what I’m talking about right now in Canburn, the UN is setting global goals for the world for the next 15 years, and they’ve asked 7 million people around the world: ‘What do you actually want?’ and very clearly, they come out and say obvious things, like they want a better education, better healthcare, more jobs, they want an uncorrupt government, and they want affordable, nutritious food. And actually, at the very last place, 16 out of 16 of what the UN asked them, they say our priorities are action taken on climate change. So again, if you ask the world’s poor they overwhelming tell you it’s about getting better healthcare, more food, more education.

ABC Interviewer – We’ll go to chew gum and walk at the same time, and I suppose that’s the argument, I think. You say, let’s look at fossil fuels, you long have advocated that access to cheap fossil fuels will best help lift poor people out of poverty, and yet you also say you want global fossil fuel subsidies cut. This costs governments hundreds of billions of dollars every year.

Bjorn Lomborg – Let me just say, yes of course we can chew gum and walk at the same time, but in some sense, we are chewing a lot of gum and I'm not sure if that’s a good metaphor, but we are spending an enormous amount of money on helping people with cutting carbon emissions, whereas we are spending relatively less on all the other things and that’s really where the question is. We got to ask ourselves, should we be focusing more on some of the obvious things, such as more education, more on healthcare, getting people rid of malaria, tuberculous, HIV and getting nutrition to small kids. Because those are the things that will lift people out of poverty, and hence, make them much less vulnerable to all the other things, not just climate catastrophes, but all the other calamities that are waiting for them. So, the realty here is simply a question saying: what are the priorities we want to focus on and one of them, as you mentioned, is to get rid of fossil fuels subsidies. Look, it’s not about saying, we either do something about climate change or not, it’s much more about, should we do smart things about climate change, which for instance is cutting fossil fuels subsidies because they drain national government budgets, so they can’t afford to do health and education, and at the same time of course encourage too much sue in the atmosphere.

ABC Interviewer – I can hear the shouts coming from the fossil fuel lobbying now, because of course if you do cut that, I think it’s $548 billion dollars with of global subsidies for fossil fuels, that would, they say, would push up the price of fossil fuels and you’re saying cheap fossil fuels access is one of the best, quickest ways to help lift people out of poverty, or at least it’s one of the key elements of that. 

 Bjorn Lomborg – Well, what we have to remember is, that if you can get better access to energy and that’s very much about better access to energy in homes, remember about 3 billion people, almost half this world’s population, cook and keep warm with dirty fuels, like dung and cardboard and wood. And that is essentially the same as smoking two packs of cigarettes for all of almost 3 billion people. That’s a terrible toll, that’s actually the world’s worst environmental problem.  It kills about 4.3 million people each year. So that’s a huge boon. Remember that fossil fuels subsidies are typically subsidies to the rich because when you subsidise gasoline, you have to have a car in order to actually afford to use that and so it’s a very, very ineffective way to help people. You’re essentially helping rich people, not very much the poor people. So, the idea here is there’s a wonderful opportunity here where you can both do economic good, you can do environmental good, and you can actually open up government budgets to do some of the other smart things on the environment, education and certainly health.

ABC Interviewer – Can I take specific example of poverty and development in Africa. The International Energy Agency, the IEA, recently released a report on what it thinks will happen if the energy mix in Sub-Saharan Africa, under its new policy scenario changes. The agency does admit, that this scenario is broadly consistent with global warming between 3 degrees to 6 degrees for the continent by the end of this century. Now, the IPCC’s have made it clear that temperature increases of that scale would have possibly, potentially catastrophic impacts. So you kind of can’t have one without the other, action on poverty combined with action on climate change. It’s just is, isn’t it?

Bjorn Lomborg – We’re missing the mark, because really we need to make sure that Africa and many other poor regions get the opportunity to develop, you know it would be almost immoral to almost not let them do that. But at the same time, as you point out, we need to tackle global warming, and the way to do that, of course is not to deny Africa development, but to make sure we develop green energy that is so cheap so that eventually everyone will buy it. So, the simple point is we have been focused so much on saying everybody has to get solar and wind because it makes us all warm and fuzzy inside, but of course remember the same agency you just mentioned, the International Energy Agency, they estimate we get about 0.4 percent of our energy rate right now from solar and wind, a trivial amount. But, even by 2040 with current trajectories of development, we will just get 2.2 of our global energy covered by solar and wind in 2040, so in 25 years from now. So the simple answer is, unless we dramatically improve that development, and that has to happen through research and development, we will not get cheap green energy so that both the Africans and we can afford to buy lots and lots of it.

ABC Interviewer – So spend our money on the research and development, and don’t spend it on adaptation? 

Bjorn Lomborg – Well no, spend it on research and development instead of spending it on subsidising ineffective solar and wind right now, which the world is spending to a tune of about three hundred billion dollars. So, there is smart policies and there are poor policies for climate change just like there is in like any other area. Let’s focus on some of the smart ones.

ABC Interviewer – Can I just ask a question you finally and briefly, because you are in Australia you want to see smart policies, better value for money. Australia has recently abandoned a market solution of carbon price for cutting carbon emissions and now the tax payers will fund the one and half billion dollars of the direct action abatement over the next 3 years.  How would you categorize that? Smart policy, poor policy?

Bjorn Lomborg – I’m sorry, I don’t know enough about the Australia policy, but in general don’t subsidize things that are incredibly costly, focus on making the cheap, easy wins.

ABC Interviewer – Bjorn Lomborg, thank you very much for joining us.

Bjorn Lomborg – Thank you.

ABC Interviewers – Bjorn Lomborg is the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, is invited to launch the department of foreign affairs innovation hub. The $140 million dollar hub is designed to pilot breakthrough global development solutions.



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