Solar Energy and the Developing World

December 14, 2021

The World Bank measures developing and developed countries by their GDP per capita. China’s per capita GDP has grown explosively from a humble $150 in 1978 to an astonishing $10,000 in 2021. The World Bank’s threshold for a high-income country is $12,536, and China is slated to make the transition from a middle-income country to a high-income one in the year 2023. At this point, China (the world’s largest carbon emitter) should no longer hide its carbon emissions behind a veil of development. China’s climate policy should reflect its new status as a developed, high-income country, and it needs to take steps to address its massive carbon emissions. The UN refers to this as ‘common but differentiated’ responsibility. It means that rich nations must contribute more to combatting the global climate crisis than poor nations, because they have the resources to spare and in general, they cause more of the pollution. Most rich countries are highly industrialized, with sprawling industrial complexes, and massive consumption. A single company in a highly developed country, Apple, for example, has a higher annual income than many poor nations combined. Pakistan’s GDP for example, though not a particularly poor or impoverished country, looks like a midget next to Apple’s annual income. Developing countries are allowed to pollute more than developed ones, so that they can catch up to their more developed peers in a ‘polluter pays’ system. In 2020, China announced that it had eradicated poverty, and in 2023, it is set to join the league of high-income nations. This is by no means a small feat, but China’s rhetoric that a developing country should not be held accountable for pollution as much as a developed one, is fast running out of steam.

Since China wishes to be regarded as a great country, an equal to the United States no less, it should be treated as one. China cannot be allowed to continue demanding to be treated equally while receiving special treatment. Xi Jinping has often referred to China as a ‘responsible great power,’ and has spoken to the marked lack of violence involved in China’s rise to great power status. Both accounts are impressive and deserve acknowledgement, yet as China grown prosperous and begins flexing its military muscles, it needs to start partaking more eagerly in humanity’s shared goals. The CCPI index 2021 ranked China on the 33rd position, still far above the United States and Australia, but far below Europe. This is no longer acceptable. Further complicating this issue is China’s projection that it will reach peak carbon emission by 2030 and become carbon neutral by 2060. In a time when the world is doing as much as it can to reduce carbon emissions as fast as possible, it is a bold (if not brash) statement from China to say that they will continue to emit carbon for another nine years. To put things in perspective, India plans to be carbon neutral by 2070. India is far more impoverished than China and many Indians live in squalor and poverty. There is no conceivable way for India to catch up, economically, to China and yet New Delhi plans to be carbon neutral just a decade after Beijing. Maybe the Indian government is being overly optimistic, or maybe the Chinese government is playing things too safe and slow. The earth is running out of time and rich nations need to do more to ensure that they play their part in rolling back climate change. America is no exception to this. Everyone loves bashing China today, but it is well worth remembering that less than a few years ago, America’s president walked away from the Paris Agreement and brashly declared that America would pollute as much as it needed to improve its economy. This is akin to a diabetic patient eating sugar to satiate their gluttony while the rest of their body begins to fail.

Developing Nations and Solar Power

Today, developing nations are adopting solar energy in larger and larger numbers than ever before. This is encouraging and heartening to see. Part of the reason for the lengthy tirade about China’s responsibility towards fighting climate change was because the country, along with India, deserves laurels for how much it has done for the growth of the solar industry. Today, Chinese commercial panels are come of the best in the world, and China is one of the world’s largest suppliers of solar PV modules, from panels to inverters and battery systems. India and China alone are largely responsible for the 3% ballooning of the solar industry in 2016, and while this is praiseworthy, it is very soon going to become a responsibility, for China at least. China already has a substantial and healthy base for solar power, and it should have no real trouble upscaling its industry. Therefore, any excuses to the contrary are going to be harder and harder for the world to swallow. Other developing countries like Brazil, Chile, Pakistan, Jordan and Mexico have doubled their solar capacity in the year 2016 alone. In Pakistan, the solar industry is growing at a steep and steady pace, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. The leading regions, in order of capacity installed, are as follows:

  1. Asia Pacific
  2. Europe
  3. North America

Asia Pacific nations are not exactly the wealthiest nations in the world. With the exception of a few, like Australia, New Zealand and now China, most are still very much developing. Countries like India still have chronic shortages of basic amenities like lavatories, while Bangladesh suffers from overpopulation and chronic pollution. Even so, this region has done more than the wealthy nations of North America (read: the United States and Canada) to install solar energy systems. They have even done more than Europe. This goes to show that developing nations are currently leading the way to solar energy. Part of this is because the prices of solar PV systems has dropped threefold, and governments have been handing our healthy tax incentives.

Second-Hand Solar Panels: Africa’s Next Big Industry?

For centuries, the used-clothes industry has been one of Africa’s biggest industries, fetching billions of dollars to the continent. Nowadays, second-hand, cheap solar panels are making their way from the developed world to Africa, where they are being sold to farmers, who use them to power water pumps. Consider the following: Most solar panels being purchased today will outlive their owners, and the best ones will retain over eighty percent of their efficiency well over twenty-five years. Solar panels that are less than eighty percent efficient are still very capable, and while the more affluent citizens of the world may consider replacing them, they will find their way to the less fortunate parts pf the world, where they will be put to good use. The second-hand solar system industry is about to boom in a big way. Marubeni Corp., one of Japan’s largest trading houses, announced in August 2021 that it is establishing a ‘blockchain based market’ for second-hand solar panels. In the future, these panels will play a crucial role in fulfilling Africa’s power demand in an affordable and sustainable manner. Not only will this reduce solar waste and the need to recycle solar panels, but it will also be a source of income and free energy for one of the world’s most impoverished continents. Instead of sending degraded solar panels to the landfill, it will be better to let them find a new home in a farm in Africa.