“I see no reason for them to do it,” says Erik Solheim, head of the United Nations Environment Program, based in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. “They should invest heavily in hydro, solar, wind. They are already, but they could do even more.”
Mr Solheim is referring to Kenya’s first ever coal plant, which is currently under construction on the island of Lamu. The plant will provide what Kenya – a country where 44 million people live below the poverty line – most most to attract investment: electricity to power a big road and rail project aimed at connecting its landlocked neighbours to a new port. To mitigate the environmental impact, the Lamu plant will employ the latest Chinese “supercritical” technology, which produces less CO2 per unit of energy.
Unlike Western UN environmentalists, many of the locals are convinced that the plant is needed. “If it comes with a job I’m ready to take it,” says 18-year-old Shebwana Mohammed. The Kenyan government agrees. “Given that Kenya requires over 30 gigawatts to be an industrialised nation, we require all kinds of sources of power”, according to Energy Minister Charles Keter.
Despite this, the EU has urged Kenya to drop its plans for the new plant, a flagrantly hypocritical position given that the EU’s largest economy Germany relies on coal for 40 percent of its power. And as Africa’s biggest investor in geothermal energy, Kenya can hardly be accused of eschewing green power.
The East African nation is likely to find a more sympathetic audience in the US, which is in the process of a launching an international Clean Coal Alliance to promote high efficiency coal technology. At a press conference this week, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said it was “immoral” to seek to prevent African countries from using fossil fuels to bring electricity to poverty-stricken populations.
Sub-Saharan African nations are clearly determined to follow the West’s fossil fuel powered path to industrialisation. Rather than trying to halt that process, the wealthiest nations should be seeking to help them use coal and gas in the cleanest possible way. America’s new pragmatism represents a welcome change of direction.