Wednesday, March 24, 2010

“I see Africa as a … partner with America on behalf of the future we want for all of our children,” President Obama declared in Ghana last July.

However, three months later, the president signed an executive order requiring that the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC) and other federal agencies reduce greenhouse gas emissions associated with their projects by 30 percent over the next 10 years. The order undermines the ability of sub-Saharan African nations to achieve progress in energy and economic and human rights.

Ghana is trying to build a 130-megawatt, gas-fired power plant to bring electricity’s blessings to more of its people, schools, hospitals and businesses. Today, almost half of Ghanaians never have access to electricity, or they get it only a few hours a week, leaving their futures bleak.

Most people in Ghana are forced to cook and heat with wood, crop wastes or dung, says Franklin Cudjoe, director of the Imani (Hope) Center for Policy and Education, in Accra. The indoor air pollution from these fires causes blindness, asthma and severe lung infections that kill a million women and young children every year. Countless more Africans die from intestinal diseases caused by eating unrefrigerated, spoiled food.

But when Ghana turned to its U.S. “partner” and asked OPIC to support the $185 million project, OPIC refused to finance even part of it - thus adding as much as 20 percent to its financing cost. Repeated across Africa, these extra costs for meeting “climate change prevention” policies will threaten numerous projects and prolong poverty and disease for millions.

Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 800 million people, 80 percent of whom live on less than $2.50 per day. More than 700 million people - twice the population of the United States and Canada combined - rarely or never have access to the lifesaving, prosperity-creating benefits of electricity, Mr. Cudjoe notes.

Even in South Africa, the most advanced nation in the region, 25 percent of the populace still has no electricity. Pervasively insufficient electrical power has meant frequent brownouts that have hampered factory output and forced gold and diamond mines to shut down because of risks that miners would suffocate in darkness deep underground. The country also suffers from maternal mortality rates 36 times higher than in the United States and tuberculosis rates 237 times higher.

And yet Mr. Obama told his Ghanaian audience last July that Africa is gravely “threatened” by global warming, which he argues “will spread disease, shrink water resources and deplete crops,” leading to more famine and conflict. Africa, he says, can “increase access to power while skipping - leapfrogging - the dirtier phase of development,” by using its “bountiful” wind, solar, geothermal and biofuels energy.

The president made these remarks before the scandalous “Climategate” e-mails were made public and headline-grabbing claims about melting glaciers, burning Amazon rain forests and disappearing African agriculture were shown to be mere speculation and exaggeration from climate activists. He also is getting awful advice on climate change and renewable energy.

Literally thousands of scientists disagree with claims that we face an imminent man-made global-warming disaster or that warming is connected to disease or harvests. Africa has faced drought, famine and disease since before biblical times, and armed conflict is far more likely where a lack of electricity perpetuates poverty, scarcity and dashed hopes.

Wind and solar power can help remote villages but are too costly, intermittent and land-intensive to meet the needs of emerging economies. A single turbine requires 700 to 1,000 tons of concrete, steel, copper and fiberglass - far more raw materials than involved with coal- or gas-fired power plants, generating equal amounts of electricity far more reliably and cheaply. And biofuels mean dedicating scarce farmland and famine-level crops to producing energy.

That is why rapidly developing nations like China and India are building power plants at the rate of one per week. In India alone, 400 million people still have no electricity; tens of millions more have it only a few hours a day. Nearly all this electricity must be based on coal.

Wind power is constrained by high cost and limited reliability. Nuclear energy faces major cost and political obstacles. To electrify India in the absence of coal, the country would have to find 14 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, build 250 nuclear power plants or construct the equivalent of 450 Hoover Dams, Penn State University professor Frank Clemente calculates. Those alternatives are unrealistic.

Blessed with abundant supplies of coal, South Africa has applied for a World Bank loan to continue building its 4,800-megawatt Medupi power plant. The Medupi plant would be equipped with the latest in “supercritical clean coal,” pollution control and “carbon capture” technologies.

However, the project and loan have run into a buzz saw of opposition, led by the Center for American Progress, Africa Action, Friends of the Earth and Sierra Club. These radical groups claim to champion justice and better health for Africa but oppose the very technologies that would make that possible.

“Telling Africans they can’t have electricity and economic development - except what can be generated with wind turbines or solar panels - is misguided at best and immoral at worst,” Mr. Cudjoe declares.

The proposed Ghanaian and South African power plants already leapfrog dirtier development phases by providing state-of-the-art pollution-control technology. The energy alternatives Mr. Obama envisions would do little to address the desperate crises that threaten Africans’ health, welfare and lives.

China and India are showing Africa the way forward. Those of us in already developed countries should support Africa’s aspirations - and help it address real health and environmental problems by using affordable, dependable energy that truly is the lifeblood of modern societies and the key to a better future for children everywhere.

Roy Innis is national chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality. Niger Innis is national spokesman for CORE and co-chair of the Affordable Power Alliance.

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