This is an updated version of a blog on sustainable development, written a few years ago after a research trip to Nairobi. I’ve updated it to reflect my evolving views on the subject.
But first: of all the places where I’ve been lucky enough to spend time with great spirits trying to invent a better, inclusive future, Nairobi is easily my favorite. The Kenyan capital – sometimes called the cognitive hub of Africa - is a lively, international city and a major center for innovation and sustainable development. Unfortunately, it can also be a place of sheer misery for those like me overly sensitive to smog.
I was there to learn and discuss entrepreneurship in Africa. But one particularly bad smograine-day on this trip caused me to obsess on the problem of sustainable mobility. Human mobility represents a huge development need everywhere but is particularly acute in Africa. On a continent of 1.3 billion, larger than the EU, India, China and the contiguous US combined, walking is still the main mode of personal transport. Motorization in the countryside is sparse. In cities like Nairobi it exists only by the grace of a thick, noxious haze blanketing everything. What is for me as a visitor only a short-term nuisance is a cause of serious respiratory disease for millions who live there.
Yet in canvassing colleagues and random people on the street, I was surprised to find this issue low to almost non-existent on the totem-pole of concerns. After a while it became clear, to me at least, sustainable mobility is not only an inexplicably neglected problem; climate change makes it a globally terrifying problem.
The blog below tries to reflect the urgency of the problem with the sort of “can-do” belief in technology and innovation as the motor for sustainable development. It ends with arguing for the great need of electric vehicles in Africa. But as this revised version hints at - and subsequent blogs will make clear - I’ve since lost my belief that the world will innovate its way out of the coming catastrophe.
I’ve since come to see innovation and human progress more as multi-generational Ponzi schemes. Each generation’s solutions are always the next generation’s headache of unintended consequences. Over the long arc of human history, that dynamic has worked out ok. At least by metrics of life expectancy, health, nutrition and education, humankind today is better off than ever. We've been able to maintain the Ponzi scheme for two reasons: First, our innovations have kept one step ahead of our worst problems (e.g. the Green Revolution staying ahead of Malthusian catastrophe). Secondly, nature has been patient in absorbing our waste, particularly carbon waste.
Unfortunately for us, though, it nature is no longer waiting for us to solve our carbon problem. This summer, for example, it was reported in Nature that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet has now passed the point of no return. So while innovation may (or may not be) the “infinite resource”, as Ramez Naam writes, time is definitely not.
At the same time, belief is not the same thing as hope. My belief that we are most likely out of time to prevent the worst doesn’t keep me from hoping I’m wrong. Or that we can at least take effective steps to mitigate the worst. In that context it does still make sense to me to think carefully about which technologies better might serve the overall goal of sustainable development. That brings me back to the original purpose of the blog below: the odd coupling of climate change and motorcycles.
By almost any measure, Africa, most particularly Sub-Saharan Africa, is in the crosshairs for catastrophic consequences of climate change of the coming decades. Food security, fresh water supplies, natural habitats and resources are all threatened by changing temperatures and weather patterns. On a continent where over 60% of jobs are in agriculture and 70% of the population depends on small scale and subsistence farming, climate change greatly raises the risk of conflict and social upheaval, not to mention refugee crises and outright famine. This year’s (2020) locust plague of biblical proportions in East Africa, linked to extreme and erratic rainfall, may be a glimpse of existential crises to come.
And even if the worst extremes can somehow still be avoided, the macro-economic projections are still alarming: a 2015 Stanford University study found a robust negative correlation between a country's GDP growth and its average annual temperatures. Based on baseline climate models, this study forecasts a net loss in GDP potential as high as 80-90% for most sub-Saharan countries by 2100. Quite justifiably, Africans (as do most in the developing world surveyed) tend to see climate change as the single biggest threat to their future.
It's all too tempting for cornucopians to point to the enormous progress in renewables and other green initiatives over the last several years and feel the world is solving the problem. To be sure, the growth of renewable energy over the last ten years has been truly impressive, and now makes up two-thirds of new power globally and one one-third of total generation. Even in the U.S., by far the worst carbon culprit per capita in the world, renewables now make 19% of electric power generation. (Yes, solar PV manufacturing does have its environmental issues, but still almost an order of magnitude better than fossil fuels in lifetime greenhouse gas emissions) Finally, the recent growth of renewables in Africa, in particular the progress in off-grid solar power to rural and low-income households, has been nothing short of heroic. While still very early and heavily concentrated in East Africa, off grid home solar and accompanying financing models from a plethora of startup pioneers like M-Kopa, Mobisol, Bboxx, Azuri and Ignite - plus mini-mobile solar stations like Africa Greentec and ARED, are on track to get sustainable electricity to 600 million Africans in remote communities well before power plants and transmission lines can. A recent UK industry report estimates a growing $25bn market opportunity in this sector alone.
But the simple truth is that the switch from carbon fuels is not happening nearly fast enough. Nor will it anytime soon. As a UN report on renewables 2020 states, even the one trillion dollars committed globally to renewable investments this decade “…fall far short of what would be needed to limit world temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius.”
For what it’s worth, the EU has announced plans for a “green” economic recovery, but globally green investments have been slowing down. Either way, excepting the current Covid-19 pandemic and the recession of 2008, global CO2 emissions have gone up every year this century. All in all, a recent publication in the American National Academy of Sciences has argued that the so-called RCP8.5 scenario – the infamous “business as usual” worst case of the IPCC, is now the most likely path until at least 2050.
Of course the climate doesn’t give a whit about investments or even emission rates, but only accumulated levels of CO2. Our atmosphere now consistently contains well over 400ppm of CO2, the highest levels since the Miocene 16 million years ago. Methane levels, by now a major contributor to radiative forcing, are almost triple their pre-industrial levels and the highest in at least 800,000 years – probably much more. And both rates are accelerating beyond modeling expectations. Given that critical feedback loops such as losses of polar ice and permafrost are probably locked in for the foreseeable future, it seems more and more likely that we are simply too late to avoid the worst-case scenarios. As the MIT Tech Review noted in 2017 "... the climate is changing faster than the models are improving, as real-world events occur that the models didn’t predict. Notably, Arctic sea ice is melting more rapidly than the models can explain, suggesting that the simulations aren’t fully capturing certain processes."
Now is the time to worry about... motorcycles?
Here are two sets of facts that surprised me when I came across them. I stay surprised at how underreported they are.
First: the focus on renewable power generation notwithstanding, it turns out that vehicle emissions from internal combustion engines (ICE) are the largest single contributor to radiative forcing, i.e. net new warming, of the globe. To be sure, the transportation sector as a whole contributes “only” about 14% of global greenhouse gas emissions. That’s huge, but still much less than electricity and heat (25%), agriculture (24%) and industry (21%). But the net warming effect on the planet also depends on the particular makeup of chemical species and particulate matter that circulate. Here, a 2010 NASA study found that ICEs have a surprisingly outsized and overall largest net effect on warming. In our era of hoping to contain every 0.1C increase, that's a huge deal. (That special makeup also makes them a major contributor to outdoor air pollution, which is responsible for 3 million premature deaths per year. For perspective, that's twice the combined number of deaths from HIV/AIDS and malaria.)
Second: motorcycles - incl. scooters, mopeds and any two-stroke engine - despite being more fuel efficient, can actually be worse than cars in greenhouse gas emission per passenger kilometer. And with their poorer emission controls, they contribute disproportionately to hazardous air quality. That's another big deal because, although motorcycles are currently a fraction of the total global vehicle fleet, they are rapidly becoming the vehicle of choice in Africa.
The growth of motorcycles in Africa is truly explosive. Although the current market is still relatively small with a bit over 20 million vehicles, it currently has a doubling rate of five years. As the most cost efficient option for individualized motorized transport, two-stroke motorcycles are rapidly becoming the dominant form of mobility on the continent. Of course, in regions where income is often less than $2/day, even low-end units can mean a significant purchase and operating expense, plus training and licensing. As small farming and sole entrepreneurship are the dominant forms of income, a typical vehicle is therefore also a direct business investment. Produce delivery, couriers and taxis, (aka boda boda in Kenya and Uganda, moto in Rwanda) have all become booming opportunities in their own right, all enabled by the relative affordability of a two-stroke engine on two wheels. In some larger cities, ICT startups such as Sendy in Nairobi, Safeboda in Kampala and Safemotos in Kigali offer an Uber-type online platform geared for the special challenges around motorcycles That challenge is safety - another terrible and underappreciated problem. (Some depressing statistics from WHO are here). In lieu of other viable options, motorcycles are quickly becoming, as one blogger has put it "Africa's 21st century version of the horse".
On the one hand, the arrival of these two-wheeled horses is a greatly needed development, especially for rural and other low-income communities. Motorized mobility is vital to economic opportunity, access to education, health care and just general living in the 21st century. At this point it's worth dwelling on the fact that personal mobility is indeed one of the greatest underserved needs in Africa, and often among the most neglected development priorities. Even where functional roads are available, walking remains the main way for people and their goods to move around. By some estimates, the average rural household spends up to 70 hours a week walking for their essential needs, which means that even a mode as simple as a basic bicycle can make a big difference. For example, World Bicycle Relief, which has distributed hundreds of thousands bicycles to date, along with kindred initiatives like Village Bicycle Project, report significant improvements in daily life for things like school attendance and performance, access to healthcare, and produce deliveries to market, etc. But while basic bicycles can be a great help, they are still quite calorie intensive, especially when carrying large loads long distances over rough terrain - not a trivial issue in food-insecure regions. And in any case, transporting larger produce loads, going to regional markets, visiting better equipped clinics, showing up for work and secondary school all require more than human power alone.
All this is to emphasize up front how important and in how many ways the motorized two-wheel boom is for the livelihoods and future prospects of so many in Africa. At the same time it should now also be clear why this development is utterly terrifying: at current growth rates for motorcycles, there could be well over one billion new ICEs on African roads this century. (The math stays basically the same even as higher-earning segments eventually opt for cars). One billion new ICEs is probably an overly high estimate, but given a projected population of 2.5 billion by mid-century, not entirely unreasonable (it would represent a motorization rate slightly less than the average over all the Americas). The current global ICE vehicle fleet is 1.2 billion, meaning that current mobility trends in Africa, if not otherwise mitigated, would eventually almost double today's biggest source of planetary warming. And as we've seen, Africa is also most vulnerable to the consequences. On top of being a global catastrophe, it would be an all-too tragic irony for the continent itself if the mobility trend providing greatly needed economic opportunity was also the trend which multiplied the greatest threat to its future.
Electric vehicles are not a luxury, but a necessity for sustainable development
Of course most of the world, lead foremost by China followed closely by most developed economies, is starting to accelerate the shift from ICEs to electric vehicles. (Or, as they are essentially computers on wheels, I like to flip the letters to ECI - electric, connected and intelligent - vehicles). To be sure, there are still environmental issues with ECIs, and depending on how dirty the source for charging is, they are often not as green as advertised. They are also not currently sustainable in every aspect of their manufacture, e.g. in mining the cobalt needed for most Lithium-ion battery designs. (The Democratic Republic of Congo currently supplies 65% of the world's cobalt, where serious reports of child labor have arisen on top of political instability which almost doubled the price recently.)
Nevertheless, many believe ECIs are on the critical path to saving the climate. My own assessment of the current climate literature is that “saving” is no longer the operative word. But even as the world braces for impact, ECIs, I think, still have a critical role to play.
The most important advantage I see for ECIs in this equation is their extremely high ceiling for rapid improvement - i.e. their fast and deep innovation cycles. To be sure, ECIs are still barely competitive with ICEs even in developed countries. But foreseeable efficiency gains in batteries, electric motors, frame designs, materials, manufacturing, not to mention all the intelligence and connectivity - together go far beyond what can be squeezed out of fossil fuel based ICE designs. Perhaps almost as important, advances in ECI tech will have cross-over benefits in other critical path sectors, like energy storage for wind and solar. Either way, we already know ECIs are the future of mobility, and that future is probably coming sooner than later.
Unfortunately, Africa is in great danger of being left behind in that future. Apart from a few hopeful projects, for example Mellowcab in South Africa, Kiira in Uganda and Scooty in Ethiopia, (and of course a few luxury dealerships in SA) the ECI industry on the continent is nonexistent. Granted, this is unsurprising for several reasons. For one thing, global manufacturers clearly have their hands full scrambling to figure out the markets in their own backyards of China, Europe and the US.
But of course the structural roadblocks to ECIs in Africa run much deeper. Sparse and unreliable grid electricity, lack of local engineering and maintenance capacity, poor road conditions all make for ginormous infrastructure and capacity building projects in their own right. Add shaky consumer credit to some of the highest rates of vulnerable employment in the world, and together it all makes the 'mere' trillion dollar problem of charging infrastructure seem almost trivial by comparison. The existential necessity for the world, at least as I see it, of ECIs in Africa versus the mind-boggling investments needed to make it happen feels like the irresistible force versus an immovable object paradox.
Still, I hate to leave the topic on a completely hopeless note without throwing at least one idea at the wall. For starters, 20 million motorcycles are not yet a climate threat, so there might still be time to resolve this paradox before the numbers get out of hand. In that time, costs for vehicles, batteries and charging will all presumably go down significantly, perhaps making bootstrapping strategies for infrastructure possible. In the meantime, one way forward might be - paradoxically - more motorcycles. Not the two-stroke dinosaur-juice kind, but ECI motorcycles and even ECI bicycles could perhaps become the "21st century horse" to bet on.
Two-wheel ECIs at least have the double advantage of being both much more affordable than four wheels and much more energy efficient per passenger kilometer. That translates to significantly smaller batteries and less infrastructure needed. A back-of-the-envelope calculation hints that even off-grid home or kiosk-based solar charging stations could be economically feasible. Finally, as computers on wheels, ECIs could also be directly programmed and calibrated for safer driving by setting maximum allowable speeds and accelerations. (In case you need more sobering reading on what a tragic and expensive problem motorcycle safety in Africa is, some more examples are here, here and here.) In summary, focusing on two-wheel ECIs would bring down the size of the problem literally by an order of magnitude: still ginormous, but perhaps not quite as hopeless.
I've been rambling here about climate change and the downstream existential nightmare that could result from Africa being left behind in the coming world of ECIs. But of course there are also more proximate economic consequences. ECIs and its siblings, artificial intelligence and robotics, will soon redefine almost every industrial sector there is. Manufacturing, supply chains, logistics, materials, workforce training, ICT and transportation infrastructure are among the most obvious ones, but in the end it's hard to argue any part of life will be exempted. No region that hopes to sustainably shape its own path in the next decades can afford to be left behind in that. And for that matter an irreversibly globalized world - fourth industrial revolution or not - is simply unsustainable when a continent of over 2 billion people is not fully integrated.
To be sure, the list of urgent development priorities is long: food security, health and employment are understandably at the top of any list. But mobile connectivity and building tech and innovation ecosystems were also once thought of as relevant only for advanced economies. Now both are recognized as important tools and even strict necessities for sustainable development everywhere. In my view, human mobility through ECI vehicles is relevant precisely for the same reasons, and so belongs in that same category.