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Providing energy to the poor in the face of climate change

ADB's Asia Clean Energy Forum 2012 Plenary session with 840 participants

Last week I attended the Asia Clean Energy Forum in Manila, hosted by the Asian Development Bank. I was impressed by their mission statement:

The Asian Development Bank aims for an Asia and Pacific free from poverty. Approximately 1.8 billion people in the region are poor and unable to access essential goods, services, assets and opportunities to which every human is entitled.

That sounds like a clear and powerful statement from which its employees should have no trouble drawing inspiration for their work. However it turns out that when this mission is applied to the forum's topic, climate change and renewable energy, its translation into action becomes less unambiguous.

An important theme in ADB's response is "Energy For All", aiming to bring basic energy needs to 700 million Asians currently still without access to electricity, an essential step in poverty alleviation. The forum spent several days worth of parallel sessions on previous successes and future plans on how to achieve that using clean energy solutions, like solar, wind, geothermal, mini-grids etc. However in between the lines, we could also learn that ADB still funds some coal and gas fired power plants. In the case of Mongolia for example, "it's can be so cold there, we simply cannot deny the Mongolians affordable means for heating their homes". In other words, ADB provides energy access to the poor by means of clean energy where it is available and where it can be affordable, but when clean energy doesnt work out, ADB still provides energy access through conventional means.

This appears to be a sound approach for a development bank whose mission is to eradicate poverty. But let us consider what climate science tells us: once we reach CO2 concentration levels of 450 ppm, our global climate is likely to spiral out of control, causing massive droughts and floods, tropical storms and sea level rise, sending billions of people back into extreme poverty. We are currently near 400 ppm and we are on a trajectory that will take us to 450 within the next two decades. Asia's hunger for energy, particularly in the form of cheap coal fired power plants, will be the biggest contributor  in getting us from 400 to 450. So you could argue that ADB by supporting conventional energy projects, coal in particular, is alleviating poverty now by contributing to an even worse poverty situation in two decades from now.

This brings to the surface a nasty moral dilemma that is very hard to address, and there are multiple reasons to justify ADB's approach: The energy needs of the poor are in need of acute solutions, denying those would be inhumane, and the 450 ppm limit is a prediction, not a hard fact. However during the five-day conference I have not been able to find proof of this explicit reasoning within the organization. Don't get me wrong, I believe the "Energy For All" program should probably continue its original path. I just hope that behind the scenes in ADB there are people who acknowledge this moral dilemma, who explicitly evaluate the possible strategies and their respective outcomes, and make a conscious decision on whether they should continue or adjust their policies to achieve their mission: alleviate poverty today AND tomorrow.