Climate change is driving debate in developed countries over the role of natural gas and other fossil fuels in the future energy mix, but in the context of global energy access, a strictly anti-hydrocarbon policy might be not only impractical but unethical.

That’s according to Energy For Growth Hub Executive Director Todd Moss, who spoke about the challenges to reducing energy poverty around the world during a panel at last week’s North American Gas Forum in Washington, DC.

In Africa, countries such as Mozambique are attracting upstream investment in their natural gas resources even as it’s become “harder and harder to attract downstream investment in the power sector,” Moss said.

In a world where “the gaps of energy equality” between developed and developing nations “are mind-bogglingly large,” for the United States or Europe to exert pressure on energy-poor countries to swear off fossil fuels is both hypocritical and counterproductive, he said.

“Gas is going to be very relevant for a lot of countries, especially those that are going to be producing it themselves...and those countries that are intending to have very high levels of intermittent renewables, wind and solar. Gas pairs very well with them,” Moss said.

“...Trying to constrain natural gas in Africa, obviously there are local environmental issues that matter, but as a global climate issue, we need to think about it slightly differently. Constraining gas in Africa cannot work. It would be ineffective as a mitigation strategy, and that is because Africa is just way, way too small.”

Speaking on the same panel, The World Bank Group’s Christopher Sheldon, practice manager for energy and extractives, said questions of equity and social justice are “critically important” when discussing energy access around the globe.

“We know that having access to electricity is essential” for reducing poverty, Sheldon said. “At the same time, we have this climate challenge where we want to bring the best of technology to those countries so that maybe they can leapfrog ahead of some of the development markers that some of the Western nations had.”

Both the economic and environmental issues need to be addressed “simultaneously, and that is very, very challenging.”

The World Bank has said it intends to end financing for upstream oil and gas projects after 2019. Sheldon said his organization views natural gas as a transition fuel, although he said doesn’t have an answer for how long that transition should last.

“There are some places where it might not make any sense at all to be doing natural gas and other places where it makes a lot of sense,” Sheldon said. “So I think it’s very difficult to have these black and white conversations” on fossil fuels. “But if the direction is one of improving energy access, particularly for the poor, that’s reducing emissions in that country, that’s combined with a lot of other positive efforts that bring in cleaner energy, that’s a fairly positive story that we can tell. That’s the kind of conversations I’m seeing happening higher up on the board.”

Pointing to other technologies such as battery storage, he said, “We have to work all those pieces together. I feel like that’s the solution. It’s very difficult for me when I hear a poor African country almost apologetic that they will have power” derived from fossil fuels “knowing that the percentage of carbon that they’re emitting in their country is so small and yet the energy needs of their country are so great...that just doesn’t seem right to me.”

Considering the consumption -- much of it enabled by fossil fuels -- in the energy-wealthy United States, Moss said there is “a lot of hypocrisy, I think, in some of the U.S. policy stances” related to energy and the environment.

“California I think of as the epicenter for U.S. environmental policy. In California, playing video games consumes more electricity” than entire nations in Africa. “Just playing video games,” he claimed. “Californians consume more electricity for their swimming pools and hot tubs than the entire country of Senegal.”

Policy makers should start with the assumption that developing nations will make every effort to provide their citizens with modern lifestyles and well-paying jobs, then ask what kind of energy that will require, according to Moss.

“I think we should take as a given that what countries want to do is what they’re going to do and that they’re also going to exploit their own endowments,” Moss said. “For the countries that have gas, or where gas should be part of the mix, I think we have to stand up for that” and not allow anti-fossil fuel arguments to get in the way.

The world’s poorest are least responsible for climate change and are expected to be most vulnerable to its impacts, he noted. “But the idea that that means they have to live a low-energy lifestyle isn’t better.

“That’s actually compounding the issue, because energy’s part of the climate problem, but energy’s crucial to adaptation solutions. That’s good for companies that are trying to build new markets. New markets are going to be in Asia and Africa,” Moss said.

“It’s also good for global poverty and for people living in those countries. I think we have to just push back against facile arguments that take two steps there but miss it on the last step.”