“Carbon Imperialism” and LPG

Responding to shareholder demands and broad public pressure, international development banks backed by western economies are throwing their weight behind renewable energy projects in the developing world. Projects that would facilitate better distribution of gas, or accelerate electrification with readily available coal or gas are denied funding. But while policymakers in Europe, the United States, and other wealthy economies gain domestic political traction from opposing fossil fuels, their efforts to select growth paths for the developing world seem out of touch and condescending. Former Indian chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian has called this anti-fossil fuel push “carbon imperialism,” and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has complained of a new colonialism, in which the developed countries of the world, having used fossil fuels to achieve prosperity, now promote energy policies that would deny growth to countries like his own.

Photo courtesy of World LPG Association, from LP Gas Magazine

Without access to reliable electric power or liquid fuels, around three billion people worldwide use biomass (e.g., wood, charcoal, or crop waste) to cook and heat their homes. These highly polluting fuels—which, it should be noted, are renewable—remain in use partly because of the objections of foreigners to alternatives like LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) and coal- or gas-fired electric power grids, a deplorably out of touch way of thinking. The WHO estimated in 2018 that 3.8 million people—mostly women, children, and the elderly who spend disproportionate time indoors—die each year from respiratory illnesses and other diseases caused by indoor air pollution. Many of these “traditional fuels” require time-consuming collection, taking away from other uses of time such as education or wage-earning activities. 

“[T]ransitioning 1 billion people from cooking with traditional fuels to clean-burning propane… will prevent 500,000 premature deaths a year and save about 6.6 million acres of forest for every 268 million households that convert.”

LPG is an important rung on the energy ladder for many poor countries, useful in areas where electric power is not yet available or is unreliable. Adopting LPG is not always easy, as gas cylinders can be costly to transport over long distances, but using these stoves instead of biomass can result in significant reductions in the health problems associated with cooking with solid fuels, reductions in deforestation, and faster economic growth (Tamba 2020). According to LP Gas Magazine, “[T]ransitioning 1 billion people from cooking with traditional fuels to clean-burning propane… will prevent 500,000 premature deaths a year and save about 6.6 million acres of forest for every 268 million households that convert.” Expanding LPG access is an achievable goal in the near term, promising relatively rapid returns on investment. Some research suggests that expanding LPG use will reduce near-term emissions of CO2, CH4, and NO in developing nations (Murshed 2020). 

And yet, as a non-renewable fossil fuel, LPG is on the target list for policymakers and environmental groups, some of which want to stop all new fossil fuel extraction investment. Nigeria’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, cautioned that pressure from wealthy nations to reduce investment in fossil fuels does not adequately account for the needs of the developing world:

Such policies often do not distinguish between different kinds of fossil fuels, nor do they consider the vital role some of these fuels play in powering the growth of developing economies, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. 

Such policies often do not distinguish between different kinds of fossil fuels, nor do they consider the vital role some of these fuels play in powering the growth of developing economies, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.

As development finance institutions try to balance climate concerns against the need to spur equitable development and increase energy security, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union have all taken aggressive steps to limit fossil fuel investments in developing and emerging economies.

Perhaps, rather than trying to steer the energy choices of the world’s poorest economies, we should respect poor individuals enough to allow them to decide for themselves what is most appropriate to their circumstances. Fossil fuels like LPG, or fossil-fuel electric generating facilities are sometimes the most appropriate option—at least in the short- to medium-term—if we are to take seriously what some in developing countries are saying. 

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