In a time of high frustration over the state of US political engagement with climate change, it’s important to acknowledge the progress being made around the world on climate change and the environment. Even if, as Ed Waisenen noted in Climate Blue’s last blog post, environmental progress is stalled or reversed at the national level, there’s still innovative and impactful work being done by a global community. As American climate researchers, we can continue to engage on a broader level, support work being done elsewhere, and learn from others so that we’re ready to act once given the opportunity.
Last week, I traveled to Monrovia, Liberia to learn from that community through a workshop on “Renewable Energy for Development”. Attended by over 60 stakeholders, including policymakers, aid organizations, private sector, and students, this event was an opportunity to share successes and failures and, more importantly, come together as a community to brainstorm the best ways to help electrify rural Liberia.
It was amazing that, in a country of only 4 million, the centralized grid generates only about 60 megawatts of electricity (for reference, the same population in the US would use 100 times that much); and yet everyone we spoke to still cared about the environmental impacts—including GHG emissions—of potential energy projects. Many participants deeply understood the need for rural electricity, but they were committed to providing it without sacrificing their environment. For example, our discussion of biomass energy delved deeply into land use and carbon cycle impacts, despite the position of biomass as by far the cheapest current option for rural electrification.
(For the record, the population of Liberia is so small and diffuse that land use change wouldn’t have major impacts; but in a country where well over 90% of the population does not receive electricity, can you imagine caring about this?)
The nexus of energy and development is something I don’t think I’ll ever fully understand–even though my degree is in physics, I just don’t know how you optimize for so many issues! In the case of Liberia, here are some of the most pressing concerns:
- Low up-front cost: Small rural communities are can’t afford expensive infrastructure. Diesel generators are the cheapest to buy and install.
- Low cost over time: Energy generated with hydro or biomass doesn’t require expensive fuel (in fact, the inputs are essentially free—the river always runs and plants on a farm always grow). These two options are by far the cheapest to the consumer in the long-run, but the up-front costs can be daunting
- Speed: The sooner electricity is delivered to communities, the sooner they are advantaged. Systems like solar or biomass require infrastructure development and training for operations and maintenance, which could slow things down.
- Funding: Funding was, by far, the biggest concern voiced by Liberian stakeholders. Aid agencies like USAID, GIZ, and the European Commission help with a lot of electricity projects, but it’s still not enough to electrify all of Liberia.
The point, I suppose, is that the high-level conversations and US engagement on global climate change are important, but climate change impacts happen on the ground level regardless. The policy implications of conferences like the COP are meant to trickle down to individual countries and communities, where we can implement actual projects to bring about actual change. In Liberia, energy poverty is a real issue, and projects can and do go on regardless of the international political climate. As spoken by an anonymous speaker in Marrakech: “Political events do not and cannot change the reality of climate change … We all have important work to do and we need to get on it.”