A sustainable energy future for the developing world?

THROUGHOUT this past week, like many of my colleagues, I found myself referring to the International Energy Conference as the ‘oil and gas conference,’ despite the repeated assertions that it was a conference that focused on the sustainable development of energy resources. That seemed to be the general perception of the attendees, and also the average Guyanese and it made me wonder if the focus on “sustainable energy” at the conference was mere rhetoric.

This question bothered me for some time, so I sat down and thought ‘long and hard’ about what was going on. Fortunately, two important considerations emerged at the conference that helped to appreciate the focus on sustainable development.

The first consideration that emerged is not anything new. In fact, it is an assertion I discussed in a previous column, that is, developing countries should not have to carry the burden of saving the earth all by themselves.

What do I mean by this? Certainly, because some countries have been burning fossil fuels for decades now to advance the industrialisation process, harmful gases have been released into the atmosphere, causing harm to the environment through climate change.

Before the environment is irreparably damaged (if it isn’t already), steps must be taken to limit and reduce our emissions. That means burning fewer fossil fuels (such as the oil produced offshore Guyana) and using more renewable sources of energy (such as solar, wind, and hydropower). Efforts such as planting more trees- because trees suck in those harmful gases released-are also solutions to save us from the harmful effects of climate change.

But think of it this way: developed countries have long been able to use these fossil fuels to power profitable industries. Like those of us in the Caribbean, developing countries have also been plundered for raw materials and exploited for free or cheap labour.

At the conference, this was a salient point raised by Guyana’s Vice-president Bharrat Jagdeo and Barbados’ Prime Minister Mia Mottley-both individuals who are, by the way, recognised at “Champions of the Earth” for their contributions to sustainable development.

Prime Minister Mottley, in particular, pointed out that developing countries such as ours have been beset by numerous challenges stemming from their exploitation and colonisation by developed countries.

That traditional exploitation and underdevelopment are exacerbated by developing countries’ vulnerability to natural disasters, such as flooding and hurricanes. And again, with these inherent vulnerabilities to contend with, we must objectively ask ourselves the question: why shouldn’t developing countries be able to exploit their natural resources for their development?

Certainly, the earth needs to be protected, it is our home. I believe, however, that there must be a deeper focus on equitable development, rather than perpetuating the unequal system in which we have all been living, perhaps since time immemorial.

And this allows me to easily sway into the second consideration, that is, even as we move towards more renewable energy sources, there will still be some demand for fossil fuels. This is simply because we have long relied on the use of these fossil fuels and so, it will take some adjusting before we can fully transition away from using these fuels.

With the demand remaining for the foreseeable future, somebody has to supply the fuels. And the Vice- president argued that Guyana and other smaller states should be the ones to supply these fuels now that they have made significant discoveries and now that they are finally able to ‘catch up’ with the developed world.

The focus, however, should be on guaranteeing the world’s energy needs without causing further harm to the environment. Prime Minister Mottley said it best: “Net-zero does not mean no fossil fuels, but it means offsetting the use of fossil fuels.”

So with countries such as Guyana and Suriname now producing and using more fossil fuels, there should be an equal or greater focus globally on taking responsibility for the harm already done. That means, perhaps, that these countries should be using more renewable energy and reforesting their lands. It means that these countries should leave some “space” for the rest of us- space to allow us to produce and use fossil fuels as they have long done. Otherwise, our use of fossil fuels would not be sustainable in any way.

So I end this week’s column by sharing the realisation that dawned upon me. When there is talk about a sustainable energy future, that does not wholly mean abandoning oil and gas or fossil fuels and immediately shifting to renewable energy. And I do not believe that it means that developing countries such as Guyana should abandon their means of gaining revenues that should be used to improve the lives of their citizens. A sustainable energy future is one where energy needs are met without causing further, irreparable harm to the environment; it is one where countries that have done the most harm with fewer repercussions ought to take greater responsibility.

If you would like to connect with me to discuss this column or any of my previous works, feel free to email me at vish14ragobeer@gmail.com

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