Ethiopia Moves Toward Carbon Neutrality

As part of its latest program to reduce carbon emissions, the Ethiopian government announced last week that it plans to reforest fifteen million hectares of land by 2025. This reforestation effort, combined with a switch to clean energy sources like geothermal and hydropower, will allow the country to become carbon neutral within fourteen years. Officials believe that by preventing climate change Ethiopia will also be able to raise its citizens out of poverty, restore degraded land, and reduce the amount of money it spends on imported fuels. If these efforts are successful, Ethiopia could serve as a model for other developing countries that want to improve their standard of living without increasing carbon emissions.

It was last year that Ethiopia first announced its intention to become a carbon-neutral country by 2025. At present the nation’s carbon footprint is negligible when compared to that of the United States, China, or other major polluters. However Ethiopia does rely on petroleum and other fossil fuels to meet part of its energy needs, importing most of that fuel from abroad. Every year it spends the equivalent of US $800 million on petroleum imports—a figure that more then equals 90% of Ethiopia’s profit from foreign trade. The decision to shift away from fossil fuels thus makes sense on economic as well as environmental grounds.

Like most developing countries Ethiopia is intent on raising the standard of living for its citizens, but it plans to do so while reducing rather than increasing its dependence on fossil fuels. Already the country generates some electricity from geothermal and hydropower, but officials believe they have barely scraped the surface of Ethiopia’s renewable energy potential. Geothermal resources along the Rift Valley could be ramped up to help meet Ethiopia’s energy needs—and meanwhile wind and solar energy are both ripe for development. To green its transportation sector Ethiopia is investing in biofuels, relying on drought-resistant crops that can thrive in its dry climate.

Initiatives like Ethiopia’s plan to reach carbon neutrality provide a much-needed antidote to the myth that poverty-stricken countries must rely on fossil fuels to grow their economies. Ethiopia, which is on the UN list of Least Developed Countries, faces as strong an imperative as any country in the world to reduce poverty within its borders. If it can achieve this goal while simultaneously cutting its carbon footprint, then other countries should be able to do the same thing.

In fact it would make little sense for Ethiopia to try to improve its economic situation by burning more fossil fuels; like many poor countries it is not rich in fossil fuel resources of its own, so relying on coal or oil for growth would mean importing ever more of the stuff from abroad. That might work out well for companies like Arch Coal and Peabody Energy, which hope to ship millions of tons of US coal to customers in the developing world. But it is hardly a good way to improve Ethiopia’s economy and self-sufficiency. For Ethiopia, as for so many other countries around the world, curbing carbon and reducing poverty will have to go hand in hand.

Photo credit: Trees for the Future

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