Mihir Sharma

To Save the Planet, Poor Nations Need to Get Paid

This week, the Democratic Republic of Congo — Africa’s second-largest nation and the sixth-most heavily forested country in the world — is auctioning off large sections of those forests to oil and gas companies. The decision has enraged climate activists: The vast tracts of equatorial forest and peatlands in the Congo River basin are one of the world’s most effective carbon sinks.

Yet the DRC’s leaders, rightly, view the world’s dismay as plain hypocrisy. The Ukraine war has pushed the West into reopening coal power plants and begging Gulf nations to pump more oil. Why, precisely, should one of the world’s poorest countries, struggling like so many others to pay higher prices for imported food and fuel, not benefit from oil production along with producers in the Middle East, Russia and the United States?

Indeed, as a response, moral outrage is both absurd and impractical. It is absurd because the countries most at risk from climate change, such as the DRC, are least responsible for the carbon already in the atmosphere and they have the fewest resources to adapt to a warming world.

Their leaders are hardly climate denialists. Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi warned last year that 15% of Africa’s GDP could be wiped out by climate change before 2030. He asked the international community for a mere $5 billion a year for five years to prevent that from happening — and didn’t get it. Is it surprising that he has lost patience?

The DRC is only the first developing nation to decide that, if rich countries aren’t serious about paying for the costs that their centuries of carbon emissions will impose on poorer ones, they will have to raise the cash themselves. Other countries will follow. During the punishing heat waves and power shortages in India this spring, one local politician told me that if India failed to raise funds for its energy transition from the international community, it would be forced to open up more coal plants “to run a billion air-conditioners, if nothing else.”

And that is why outrage is also impractical. There is no reasonable way of forcing countries to decarbonize. Whether autocrats or democrats, their leaders will always focus on the immediate needs of their citizens over any global priorities. And they have options: If Western companies choose not to bid on Congolese oil and gas blocks, Chinese petrochemical majors will happily snap them up.

In the end, countries such as the DRC will have to be paid to do what is right for the rest of the world. If you want to be moral about it, call it a fraction of the compensation they are due. If you want to be pragmatic, admit they need to be bought off.

Is that impossible? With their own economies struggling, which Western nations are ready to hand over billions of dollars to poorer ones thousands of miles away, particularly if many of those nations have struggled with official corruption in the past?

Deals to aid decarbonization in the developing world don’t have to involve simple transfers to government budgets. The conversation has moved way beyond that. Focused, sector-specific debt-for-decarbonization swaps are being worked out. The $8.5 billion agreement to help South Africa move away from coal was the only real achievement at COP26 last year. Similar mechanisms need to be constructed for many other countries — including, clearly, the DRC.

It’s not as if there aren’t obvious deals to be made. The DRC doesn’t just have oil and gas — it has the Congo River. It has struggled to build a new hydropower plant to replace the four-decade-old Inga-1 and Inga-2. It now looks like any new project can only be built with Chinese money, and only if it exports most of its power to South Africa and not to the energy-poor local population. And, of course, such a plant might never get built if large parts of the jungle around it are razed to pump oil instead. Instead of complaining, shouldn’t the world finance a sustainable Inga-3?

As for where the money will come from, let’s get real. There are plenty of funds available. The US and the European Union are spending billions chasing pie-in-the-sky technologies that might lead to carbon capture and storage decades from now. They’d get a faster and better return on those investments if they paid countries such as the DRC to save the carbon sinks that already exist.

While net-zero targets in the distant future may be inspiring, it’s important to remember that the fate of the world will be decided before 2030. It is over the next few years that emerging economies will put into place their infrastructure for the coming century. Whether it is small coal plants in Indonesian industrial parks, or giant new oilfields in the Congo basin, critical choices are being made now. This is a moment for action, not useless outrage.