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About the Author

Tomas Moe Skjølsvold
PhD Candidate (Trondheim, Norway)

PhD Candidate at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, working on issues related to renewable energy, sustainable development avd climate change from a social scientific perspective

Post

Making an omelet without breaking eggs?

Published 01st April 2010 - 7 comments - 3219 views -

The world’s fourth largest power company, Eskom, is building a new, massive coal-fired power station in the Limpopo province of South-Africa. If realized to its full extent estimations suggest that it will singlehandedly increase the country’s greenhouse gas emissions with six percent, while other sources suggest that the scheme might severely damage local ecosystems. The very real upside, of course, is a more stable supply of electricity with all its associated benefits throughout the region. The World Bank is currently debating, and will decide by the end of April whether or not it will grant the project a loan of 3, 75 billion US dollars. Its experts are leaning towards granting it (click for experts’ evaluation). I won’t dwelve on this particular case, since I don’t really know much about it, but it revitalizes an interesting debate surfacing from time to time.

This debate concerns the relationship between the terms “sustainability” and “development”. Are the goals of ending poverty, raising living standards, increasing standards of sanitation, electrification, transport and levels of education (to name a few) combinable with sustaining ecosystems, natural resources and biodiversity? Or, is the term “sustainable development” – as many scholars have claimed since the phrase became widely popular in 1987 – an oxymoron? Don’t we have to break a few eggs to make our omelet? (Check out Liisa-Maija’s post for a discussion on defining “sustainable development”)

“Development” usually refers to a shift in the state of something (or someplace or someone). For example, Daerdorff’s dictionary of international economics refers to economic development as: “Sustained increase in the economic standard of living of a country's population, normally accomplished by increasing its stocks of physical and human capital and improving its technology”. In other words – with a purely economic mindset “development” could simply be substituted with growth; a type of change which requires mobilizing ever-increasing amounts of material resources. On a semantic level this resonates poorly with the idea of sustaining the same resources for future generations.

Perhaps, however, this conclusion is premature? If we seek inspiration from fields outside economy we soon discover that “development” could mean many things. Child development, for example, refers to  “…the biological and psychological changes that occur in human beings, between birth and the end of adolescence, as the individual progresses from dependency to increasing autonomy”(wiki). Although flawed as a metaphor in many ways, the ideas related to human development tends to focus much more on qualitative aspects than our ideas about developing “the world”. This is understandable, the economic and material aspects of development are easier to measure than more intangible ideas like “quality of life” or “autonomy”.

Of course I don’t have a clear answer for the question “is sustainable development even an achievable goal?” As in my first post on this platform, I’m simply trying to mess things up a bit – development will mean different things in different locations, as will sustainability. With issues related to climate changes always lurking in the background the sustainability-part of development will remain in the spotlight, not just in local arenas, but globally. At a global scale the prospect of sustainable development is related to how we chose to live in the “developed” world, something which makes the issue a bit uncomfortable for many of us.

Would we even consider decreasing our own resource consumption to allow the less fortunate the chance to grab a larger piece of the pie?  Or should we just continue breaking eggs and hope for the best?

 



Comments

  • Liisa Leeve on 01st April 2010:

    It’s really tricky because we can’t really afford to point our fingers at developing countries for using coal and polluting the environment before we get our own act together…

    But we could be financing a lot more clean energy projects also in the developing world.


  • Tomas Moe Skjølsvold on 02nd April 2010:

    Thanks for the comment, Liisa-Maija. It’s definently tricky - and in this case the world bank is most likely to give the loan on the condition that Eskom invests significantly in solar and wind-power projects. Some reports suggests that around 400-500 million of the 3, 75 billion dollar-loan will be given specifically for this purpose.

    Earthlife Africa makes a strong case against the scheme in this article, for anyone interested in more background material on this particular case: http://www.earthlife.org.za/?p=858


  • Tomas Moe Skjølsvold on 09th April 2010:

    This just in: the world bank has approved the Eskom loan against the votes of amongst others the US, the Netherlands, the UK, Italy and Norway, who saw the project as too eviromentally problematic.

    See: http://www.timeslive.co.za/local/article394109.ece/Eskom-gets-Medupi-cash or:
    http://www.eyewitnessnews.co.za/articleprog.aspx?id=36805

    Hope the money they plan on using for renewables will end up well spent..


  • Elsje Fourie on 11th April 2010:

    Hi Tomas, glad you posted on this, as I’ve been wanting to do something on this story as well. In cases like these, I tend to be of the “let countries grow first before we start imposing too many conditions” school.  Within limits of course, particularly where human rights or wholesale destruction of the environment are concerned.  But I’ve seen how my family in SA has struggled with all the power cuts, and I know the country’s small and medium businesses desperately need energy. 

    One thing that has tempered my support for this project somewhat is the news that the ruling ANC has a financial stake in the project, suggesting the tenders process was probably mishandled. So we can really put pressure on the SA govt on the finer details of this project’s implementation - but overall I do find it strange that countries with more CO2 emissions than SA can feel justified in opposing it altogether.


  • Tomas Moe Skjølsvold on 11th April 2010:

    Hi Elsje - Yes, as I said I really don’t know enough about the issue to form a solid opinion. It would be really interesting read a more elaborate take on the issue by you, though. We get the story presented as a type of macro-story mainly to do with huge amounts of cash and CO2 here, but know very little about how SA-people think/feel about it all..


  • Elsje Fourie on 11th April 2010:

    Thanks Tomas - I have to admit it’s been a while since I lived in SA so I’d have to do a bit more research first. I’d like to, though, and meanwhile it’s good that you’ve highlighted what I think is an important development story on so many levels.


  • Helena Goldon on 11th August 2010:

    I feel ashamed of having discovered your posts so late, Tomas, but I think they’re right on the money!

    So many topics discussed on this platform could be enclosed in your question: “Would we even consider decreasing our own resource consumption to allow the less fortunate the chance to grab a larger piece of the pie?  Or should we just continue breaking eggs and hope for the best?”

    Belated very well done!


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