There is ample reason to praise President Obama’s engagement with a diverse collection of world leaders; in particular, the administration’s “pivot to Asia” indicates recognition of an evolving geopolitical landscape, a recognition that will hopefully continue in his second term. But one region in particular has been noticeably absent from the administration’s agenda: sub-Saharan Africa. And this oversight could have long-term implications for the energy future of the sub-Saharan African region, and even the economic future of the United States.

No region suffers from energy poverty more than sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly seven out of ten people lack access to reliable and affordable electricity.

Sub-Saharan Africa is a region full of contradictions. On the one hand, it is home to six of the ten fastest growing economies between 2001 and 2010; on the other, 14 of the 20 states Foreign Policy’s Failed State Index deems “critical” are located in sub-Saharan Africa. Throughout the region, one of the largest obstacles towards widespread and equitable economic development is the crippling degree of energy poverty. The most recent data suggests that a lack of access to reliable and affordable electricity leaves nearly 70 percent of sub-Saharan Africans in the dark every day.

With the re-election of President Obama, the time is ripe for the administration to realize that, for all of the region’s struggles, reaching out to sub-Saharan Africa is within the United States’ self-interest. Prioritizing the alleviation of energy poverty is one way to strengthen efforts to improve the quality of education, reduce illness and disease, boost incomes across the region, and also to lay the groundwork for budding economic partnerships. 

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Africa, Brazil, China, renewable energy, renewable energy investment, sustainable development, United States
Session of the United Nations climate negotiations October 2 in Panama City. Source: International Institute for Sustainable Development

Session of the United Nations climate negotiations October 2 in Panama City. Source: International Institute for Sustainable Development

Panama is only a short hop from the Caribbean islands now home to Worldwatch Institute’s Low-Carbon Energy Roadmaps project. But, it’s a big leap from the national renewable energy strategies being developed in the Caribbean to the tense efforts just wrapping up in Panama City to agree on global climate change reduction goals.

The Panama meetings from October 1-7 marked the final preparatory negotiation before the next United Nations climate change summit convenes in Durban, South Africa from November 28-December 10. With many issues on the negotiating table, countries made surprising progress on providing funding for climate change solutions, especially in developing countries. Countries also pushed big issues like a new global climate agreement and the next stage of the Kyoto Protocol onto an already overflowing agenda for Durban.

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Australia, aviation, banks, Brazil, BRICS, Cancun, carbon dioxide, charge, China, clean technollgy, Climate Change, Copenhagen, December, Dominican Republic, Durban, emissions, entrepreneurs, European Union, finance, G20, Green Climate Fund, greenhouse gas, Haiti, hop, India, International Monetary Fund, Jamaica, jump, Kyoto Protocol, LBI, legally binding instrument, New Zealand, October, Panama, pollution, renewable energy, Roadmap, shipping, South Africa, tax, Technology Executive Committee, trading, trip, United States, World Bank

Marina Silva got everyone's attention in Brazil's October 3 presidential election

On October 3, Marina Silva, a long-time environmental champion and winner of multiple international awards including the Goldman Environmental Prize, received over 19 percent of the vote in Brazil’s presidential election, far more than pre-election polls predicted. Ms. Silva, who served as environment minister before resigning in protest of continued encroachment into the Amazon rainforest, is a charismatic figure with a compelling and inspiring life story. But her unexpected success is just the latest example of the unprecedented rise of Green parties around the world.

A recent conference held by the Center for American Progress and Heinrich Boell Stiftung in Washington, D.C. discussed the rise of the German Green Party. Forsa, a respected German pollster, announced on October 6 that, for the first time in German history, the Green Party overtook the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to become the second most popular party. According to Forsa, 24 percent of the German electorate would vote for the Greens and only 23 for the SPD (with the Conservatives [CDU], Left, and Liberals [FDP] at 31, 10, and 5 respectively). This is a dramatic increase from the 2009 federal election, where the Greens received 10.7 percent of the party vote, itself an all-time high.

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Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Green Party, Marina Silva, politics, United Kingdom, United States

Brazil’s Green Party presidential candidate and former Minister of Environment, Marina Silva, spoke Monday at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars of a “common responsibility” to climate change.

Ms. Silva was born into a rubber tapping community in the western state of Acra, Brazil. As she completed university, Silva became politically active, helped create the first worker’s union in Acre, and started working with environmentalist Chico Mendes against deforestation. She was elected to the Brazilian Senate in 1994 as a member of the Worker’s Party, and served as Environment Minister under the current President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from 2003 to 2008 – when she resigned due to other government agencies’ resistance to upholding environmental policies. In August 2009 Silva switched to the Green Party, mostly in protest over the Worker Party’s environmental policies. Among many other honors, Silva has received a Goldman Environmental Prize and was declared a “Champion of the Earth” by the United Nations Environment Program.

Marina Silva, potential presidential candidate for Brazil's Green Party

Marina Silva, presidential candidate for Brazil's Green Party

Ms. Silva’s Wilson Center address on climate change was dominated by the word “urgency.” Silva supports a comprehensive approach to global emissions reductions, believing that all countries should partake in climate change mitigation, as “our planet does not take into account where the emissions are coming from.” In accordance with the well-established principles of “the polluter pays,” and the “common but differentiated responsibilities” of all countries in line with their capabilities to reduce emissions and their historic emission responsibilities, Silva acknowledged that industrialized countries should pay for the transfer of technology to less developed countries and provide financial aid for mitigation and adaptation. Silva also noted that there were segments of society in less developed countries with per capita levels similar to the United States, and noted that “new equations” in GHG emissions called for “new and innovative solutions.”

Her argument was optimistic and progressive. Ms. Silva believes that “Brazil has a contribution to make” and envisions it as an active leader in global GHG emissions reductions, providing a “proactive stance” and working alongside other countries. Brazil is already a global leader in biofuels and hydropower production and is in the process of further diversifying its energy power matrix. Brazil is also home to the world’s largest rainforest (the largest carbon sink found in any one country) and Silva believes that Brazil can serve as an example for other countries to manage their rainforests in a sustainable way.

Energy is needed for development. Although developing countries for many decades have prioritized economic development in order to alleviate poverty often at the expense of environmental sustainability, the World Bank estimates that there are still over three billion people living on less than $2.50 a day. Ms. Silva advocates a “new definition of civilization,” where she suggests shifting cultural practices to separate present day notions of well-being from contemporary patterns of consumption. She also envisions incentives to establish change – including laws, monitoring systems, and fines – to ensure local compliance to government policies.

Ms. Silva encourages countries, including those in the developing world, to take their own initiatives to mitigate climate change, claiming that other countries would feel “ethically obliged” to follow the example. This is a far cry from the 1997 “Brazilian Proposal” [PDF] during Kyoto Protocol negotiations, where the Brazilian delegation proposed that the burden of emissions reductions among Annex I parties should be proportional to their historic responsibility for emissions. Unfortunately, political realities and special interests often prevent countries from acting purely on an ethical basis. All too often a one-dimensional interpretation of national interests and short-sighted economic reasoning prevent international and domestic environmental agreements.

Marina Silva’s comprehensive approach demonstrates a deep understanding of the complexity, urgency, and broad scope of climate change. Although climate change was historically caused by industrialized nations, developing countries are increasing their portion of GHG emissions as they industrialize. As Ms. Silva stated, “We must come to terms with the fact that we are late in the game.” Climate change is truly a global issue that requires an international solution. Ms. Silva’s post-nationalistic and progressive views demonstrate leaps and bounds in the international climate negotiations currently underway. They would greatly benefit the global community if embraced at Copenhagen.

biofuels, Brazil, Green Party, Marina Silva, the polluter pays