Everything old is new again, at least at the G-7.
The seminal G-7 meeting was convened in 1973 over energy issues. Now, nearly half a century later, leaders of the world’s seven largest economies gathered again, and once more, energy was a key topic. But the G-7 also discussed how to reduce inequality among nations. That’s easy, though: The answer to inequality is a global rollout of affordable, reliable energy.
One of the most exciting, and often overlooked, stories of the last century is the lifting of billions of vulnerable people from “extreme poverty” worldwide through the rollout of affordable energy, whether electricity or transportation fuels. In 1980, nearly half of all people on the planet lived in “extreme poverty,” meaning that they were unable to pay for the most basic needs such as food and shelter.
For these populations, a mother holding a dying child in her arms for lack of clean drinking water was a common occurrence. Watching one’s entire family and village face famine and chronic malnutrition was the norm.
Yet these problems proved solvable with the deployment of basic technology and an energy supply. Where there is electricity to pump clean water, and natural gas-derived fertilizers to quadruple crop yields, the people flourish. Over 40 years, world trade took its natural course, bringing electricity to markets around the world. Developers and entrepreneurs know that increasing populations lead to emerging markets, and that a constantly developing world grows the international economic pie.
World poverty has been reduced from approximately 50% of the world’s population in 1980 to just 10% today, one of humankind’s most impressive achievements. Even so, life expectancies remain much shorter for those without electricity. An average man in Burundi has less than a 10% chance of having access to electricity, and his life span is less than 60 years.
Similarly, an estimated 3.8 million people die each year from indoor air pollution, in part because they are forced to heat their homes and cook with wood or dung instead of electricity or natural gas. Over a billion people continue to live in wrenching poverty with no access to electricity to bring them clean water and sanitary hospitals, productive farms, or growing economies.
We already know the solution.
There is a near-perfect correlation between the use of energy and the size of an economy. History shows a strong correlation between the use of fossil fuels and economic growth over time. It is no coincidence that the U.S. is both the world’s economic leader and the world’s largest energy consumer.
For most of modern history, energy has meant fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Despite many billions invested in renewables, wind and solar each only produce energy for the United States in single-digit percentages. The world’s electricity is currently derived almost entirely from fossil fuels and nuclear energy. In fact, the majority of world energy will still come from fossil fuels in 2040, regardless of thousands of headlines to the contrary.
Still, activists have placed immense pressure on the G-7 to promote “green” policies that would deny the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy to the nearly one billion men, women and children who still have no electricity. They urge world leaders to sacrifice more lives by erecting artificial barriers to trade and development, not understanding that the crisis before us is not a climate crisis years away: it is a crisis of human suffering happening right now. One billion people need help now.
G-7 countries are the largest consumers of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. In fact, vast use of these energy sources is a signature characteristic of wealthy countries. When the G-7 urges policies to end inequality, it should not deny to other countries the energy sources that have made themselves rich.
“Energy for me, but not for thee” is not an appropriate or compassionate stance. If the G-7 will act to prevent the deployment of energy, it should walk the walk, applying the same draconian policies to itself. Its economies would grind to a halt overnight.
Thankfully, the G-7 nations will not ultimately choose energy austerity, and they have no authority, moral or otherwise, to force it onto others around the world. And if they truly want to address inequality, well, the great equalizer to level the playing field is access to affordable energy.