climate change development

Ethiopia’s green economy plan

africa-wind-farmOne of the sticking points in global climate negotiations is the role of developing countries. As the biggest emitters historically, it is the industrialised nations that need to reduce their carbon, but they won’t do it unless developing nations make commitments too. And developing countries won’t do anything to disadvantage themselves in their efforts to industrialise.

There are several flawed assumptions behind the stalemate, including the idea that decarbonising is a bad thing that we won’t do unless we absolutely have to, like a child being told to tidy their room. The fact that a decarbonised economy would be more energy secure, healthier and actually sustainable seems not to have registered. Another assumption is that poorer countries can’t afford to limit their carbon emissions, and that they need to prioritise economic growth and come back to environmental action later.

Through the logjam there are, however, a few points of light and reason. One of them has been Ethiopia. Under the leadership of the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, it has taken climate change entirely seriously and adapted its development model accordingly, setting itself the goal of achieving “middle income status by 2025 in a climate-resilient green economy.”

I was reminded of this vision recently by the news that Ethiopia have just switch on the continent’s biggest wind farm. Since Ethiopia’s experiment is still hardly known, I though it might be worth looking at in a little more detail.

The Ethiopian government knows that the conventional development model has consequences, however taken for granted it may be elsewhere. “Following the conventional development path would result in a sharp increase in GHG emissions” says the 2011 green economy strategy document. Furthermore, it “could result in unsustainable use of natural resources, in being locked into outdated technologies, and in losing an ever-increasing share of GDP to fuel imports.”

Instead, the strategy outlines four main areas of focus:

  • Agriculture: Improve food security and welfare of farmers while reducing emissions, by improving crop and lifestock production. Emissions can be reduced through sustainable intensification, which aims to improve yields on existing land rather than expanding it. Degraded land will be restored as part of a soil preservation strategy, rather than clearing new forest land for crops. Organic techniques will be used where appropriate, alongside more efficient use of fertilisers and better control of residues.
  • Forestry: Re-establish forests and protect existing ones, creating carbon stocks and capitalising on REDD initiatives, while raising production in forest products such as honey and shade grown coffee. The country has been losing forest for fuel wood, so moving people from wood-burning stoves to biogas or electric is a priority. Degraded grazing land will also be restored and reforested.
  • Power: The country is largely hydro powered as it is, and it expects to be entirely renewable by 2015. It also needs to expand power generation considerably, and recognises this as a “fundamental bottleneck to growth.” Future generation will be renewable, with wind, geothermal, solar, further hydropower projects and even landfill gas. The country is the first in Africa to invest heavily in wind power, and this meshes well with existing capacity – hydro drops off at the end of the rainy season, but wind speeds increase in the dry season. By investing in renewable energy now, Ethiopia intends to be a net exporter of electricity in the region.
  • Transport, industrial sectors and buildings: leapfrog to modern and energy efficient technologies. Renewable based electrification will replace the widespread use of kerosene lamps. There’s an electric rail strategy, particularly within Addis Ababa and between the capital and the seaport in neighbouring Djibouti. “Shifting transport from road to rail would not only decrease transport costs and improve the trade balance through reduced import of fossil fuels, but would also lower emissions, congestion, air pollution, and traffic accidents.”

None of this, you will notice, ignores economic growth – and nor should it. As a poor country, Ethiopia needs growth far more than we do in Britain. Ethiopia is one of the world’s fastest growing economies, and it has no plans to abandon that momentum in exchange for sustainability. This is about building it green first time round, rather than following the usual fossil-fuel based industrial model and then hoping you can patch it later.

How successful Ethiopia are remains to be seen, and with acute poverty there is a real challenge to make this green growth inclusive. It could also be derailed. There has been fairly widespread support for the vision, but with the death of Zenawi last year, it is unclear how the policies will fare in his absence. But if the commitment survives the power transition, Ethiopia will remain one of the most progressive nations in the world when it come to climate change.


  1. Worth noting Ethiopia is far from a model democracy. It is a debatable point how much this could be done is a genuine plural democracy. Not sure I know the answer to that.

    1. I guess we’ll find out how deep it goes as the country adjust to the new regime. They have an advantage in that this is development happening first time round, so there’s nothing to lose by leap-frogging to greener technology. It’s a very different story for most of us, off down the wrong road and needing to turn things around. If you haven’t got power, you’re not going to care much whether it comes from a coal power station or from solar panels, as long as you get it.

      1. I wouldn’t say we set off down the wrong road, We went down the appropriate road at the time. Victorian solar cells weren’t very good.

        Examples: Gas lighting was appropriate for the 19th century, though not so for 21st, hence we had legacy costs in replacing them, developing countries as you say can leap frog that.

        1. We’ve been on the wrong road the whole time, though we couldn’t have known it. We’ve been without that excuse for about it for about 30 years though.

          1. There was no way we could have developed the industrial economy which has so greatly enriched most people on this planet and made us rich enough to develop technologies that might soon allow us to replace carbon fuels, without the use of carbon fuels.So the alternative was to remain in a peasant agrarian existence. Since that was hated by pretty much everyone in it I’d argue that that would have been the wrong road.

  2. This is fantastic – I really hope the new leader carries on with the plan. I think it’s imperative really that poor countries leapfrog to sustainable economies. They desperately need to get out of poverty but the climate can’t afford them all having industrial revolutions in the way that we did.

    1. Exactly. Everyone needs electricity and running water. Ethiopia is just being smarter than most in how they plan to deliver those things. I’m really hoping they press on with it – they should, because for all his flaws elsewhere, Zenawi was right on climate change.

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