A greener shade of black

Chance’d be a fine thing, as the idiom goes, but wouldn’t it be nice if providing context in media energy stories became the norm rather than a rarity?

There’s a good example of this in the recent media coverage of the World Bank paper on energy financing and the so-called greening of the bank that it is seen to symbolise.

The media shorthand for this paper is “World Bank cuts off funding for coal” or, as “our” ABC put it in a lengthy radio current affairs report: “World Bank to stop funding coal-fired power stations in developing countries.”

(Eventually the ABC report gets round to a caveat or two, but its main thrust is as set out above and this is what will resonate with casual listeners.)

And, of course, our greener friends see things clearly: “World Bank abandons coal: green light for clean micro-grids,” says one report.

So what’s the broader story?

Well, the bank, for a start, makes it clear it will continue to fund coal plants in countries where there is no better alternative – possibly starting with Kosovo – and it certainly not shunning fossil fuels.

Most immediately, the bank is considering a request to finance a 600 megawatt Kosovo brown coal project and its president, Jim Yong Kim, says: “The people of Kosovo face freezing to death if we don’t (do this).”

The not-to-be-ignored point (unless you have a green axe to grind) is that the World Bank’s core clientele are the 82 countries that are both poor and energy poor, home to 1.8 billion people, two-thirds of whom have little or no access to electricity.

As one US think tank, the Centre on Global Development, has put it, in commenting on the bank’s position, there are, in fact, two big issues for these countries: their health problems and the economic benefits provided by access to electricity.

Milton Catelin, CEO of the London-based World Coal Association, has harked hard on this, pointing out to America’s Fox News that the raison d’etre of the World Bank is supposed to be working towards eradicating global poverty rather than “jumping on the climate change bandwagon.”

Catelin argues that it is ridiculous to think the bank today “has anything to do with poverty eradication – it has become nothing more than another international body.”

The bank, which annually funds $US50 billion worth of infrastructure around the globe, has actually lent just $US5 billion over the past five years for coal-fired generation developments. Of this, $3 billion has gone to one project in South Africa.

While it has been loudly yelled at by green advocates for doing so, this aspect of its lending is minor when its own budgets and the overall global outlays on coal and gas plants are taken in to account.

Also germane is the fact that the bank has outlayed $US49.2 billion to support energy projects between 2007 and 2012, of which a quarter has been spent on renewable energy developments, including hydro-electric plants and biomass.

Part of the broader context in considering what the bank is saying is that there are reportedly 1,199 new coal-fired plants (with a total proposed capacity of 1,401 gigawatts) under consideration around the world at present, 75 per cent of them in China and India – and the former definitely isn’t looking for World Bank help to build its projects.

Apart from these two, the top 10 countries on the list of coal developments being planned are Russia (48 GW), Turkey (36 GW), Vietnam (34 GW), South Africa (22 GW), the US (20 GW), Ukraine (14 GW), Poland and Germany (each 12 GW).

Taken together, what this second-tier group is considering amounts to almost 10 times the existing coal generation fleet in Australia and most are not seeking bank aid.

To circle back to what I consider to be the really big issue, as the World Bank itself sets out up front in its paper, one fifth of the world’s population – 1.25 billion people or 60 times the Australian population – lives today without any access to electricity and two-fifths of the world’s population rely on solid fuels (eg wood, charcoal,dung and coal) for cooking and heating, resulting in 3.5 million people (almost the population of Melbourne) dying annually from the effects of indoor air pollution.

This is not something that gets called to mind when our Prime Minister postures for the media in North Queensland on the urgent need to ensure our children and grandchildren have access to the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef by our embracing an emissions trading scheme.

World Bank officials, briefing journalists, concede that there are “a certain amount of countries” who can’t be told they will have to wait 15 years for new renewable forms of power generation to become viable.

Their paper also indicates that a large part of the bank’s renewables focus will be on hydro-electric developments – which led “our” ABC to devote almost half of its radio report to the deep unhappiness of the more radical with large-scale hydro power.

And, yes, of course, the bank is supporting other renewable energy projects – and makes a fair bit of this in its report, pointing to wind farms in Turkey, concentrating solar power plants in North Africa and so forth.

However, the bank also says rather clearly that it will “scale up its (financing) engagement with natural gas,” committing to assisting developing countries to address barriers to on the supply chain from exploration to pipelines to power plants.

(The World Coal Association also has the irrits with the bank’s emphasis on gas at the expense of more-affordable coal when, it says, the criteria should be reducing poverty and supporting development.)

If your sole perspective as a media outlet is the need to boost the rush to certain kinds of renewable energy to “save the planet,” some of the bank paper is heresy, but, having spent the first 30 years of my life in Africa and having first-hand knowledge of the horrors of poverty for large numbers of people, it seems to me that much more context and balance are needed in assessing what the bank is really saying even as it works to paint itself a greener shade of black for political reasons in the Western developed countries.

Perhaps it also says something that the Chinese government has waved the bank paper through the consultation process; after all, what difference does it really make to what’s happening on their ground?

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