In Defense of Gas and Coal for the Developing World

Stablemen warm theirselves by burning horse excrement while waiting for customers at the famed tourist attraction Jiayuguan Pass, in China's northwestern province of Gansu, 13 October 2005. A yawning gap between rich and poor in China is seriously threatening social stability, the United Nations said in a report on December …
LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images

In the developing world, millions of people die each year from pneumonia, tuberculosis, malaria, and parasitic infections.

The ongoing scale of suffering in these countries is unimaginable—with the afflicted never finding pain relief from gradually worsening symptoms that eventually kill them.

It’s commendable that humanitarian groups and charitable foundations continually seek to provide vaccination for these at-risk populations. But those efforts pale in comparison to offsetting the ongoing, negative impacts of unsafe drinking water, poor sanitation, and the smoky burning of dung fuel.

Part of what makes First World living so easy by comparison is ready access to electricity. Food is refrigerated, houses are heated. Faucets deliver clean, treated water. Waste and sewage disappear through underground plumbing.

What enables this safe, comfortable living is sturdy, non-stop power generation. And that’s noteworthy because the effort to supply every home in a major city with sufficient electricity to power refrigerators, air conditioners, lights, microwave ovens, etc., requires a very significant lift.

Same with the effort to transport millions of gallons of drinking water into cities each day—and to clean that water before pumping it onward to homes, schools, businesses, and hospitals. Similarly, there’s also the perpetual work of routing sewage into treatment facilities, with mechanical separation and chemical remediation rendering it safe for riverside disposal.

Potentially the greatest environmental improvement that man has accomplished in modern life is this treatment and disposal of human waste. It is the separation of urban living from its bacteria-ridden byproducts that has helped to vanquish many of the illnesses that still plague the developing world.

Consequently, the Third World desperately needs basic electrification. A village with access to sufficient electricity can light homes, pump water from underground aquifers, clean and treat that water for safe drinking, and successfully route sewage away from homes and roads.

These are simple tasks, and they ignore the greater luxuries of refrigeration, home heating, air-conditioning, and indoor stoves. But they are the modest start to safer, healthier living.

Unfortunately, such alternatives are currently denied to the developing world. The global elite of modern society are preoccupied with “carbon pollution,” and they deem fossil fuels to be an absolutely unacceptable option for these struggling populations. Essentially, what the global warming elite prescribe for the Third World are solar panels and the occasional wind turbine.

But solar panels offer very little assistance to poor people struggling with unsafe water and dirty homes. The truth is, solar panels only provide sufficient electricity to switch on a few lightbulbs. And so, these people are left struggling in the same tenuous existence.

It is the height of egotism for wealthy First World elitists to lecture the Third World by saying, “We know better. Don’t make the mistakes we made with carbon pollution.” Such condescension is immoral because it not only withholds meaningful aid, but also smugly asserts a basic superiority.

What the developing world wants is not carbon credits but simple health and dignity.

Many of these countries possess significant reserves of coal and natural gas. Or the mineral reserves sufficient to purchase fossil fuels. And so, imagine the vast transformation that could be unleashed in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia if these populations were given modern gas-fired or coal-fired power plants.

While coal is often denigrated as being dirty, the simple truth is that, not only is it plentiful and affordable, but modern coal plants scrub emissions of sulfur, nitrous oxides, mercury, acid gases, and particulate matter. And so, these clean-coal power plants could enable an amazing transformation in living standards for millions of people.

The question mark in such discussions is often “carbon pollution”—as in, “Oh, no, we can’t have more CO2 emissions…”

But speculation over climate change should not be permitted to casually excuse continued death and suffering on a global scale. In fact, China and India have very clearly repudiated such views with their own recent embrace of coal power as the means to lift populations out of abject poverty and disease.

Since China and India will continue to embrace coal, the global elites should concern themselves more with ensuring that such power generation employs all of the available technology needed to scrub emissions. And by extension, Africa and Asia should be allowed similar gas and coal power, driven by equally modern, high-efficiency systems.

The theory of manmade warming remains a heavily contested ideology.

But the attention focused on that debate obscures the more immediate problem of alleviating omnipresent human suffering. In good conscience, those who advocate for environmental justice should focus on the core belief that drives all such activism—the chance to enhance human living through a safer environment. To do otherwise, means to forfeit the lives of millions of the less fortunate.


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.