In July 2010, Ethiopia’s Environment Protection Authority declared it would have a carbon-neutral economy by 2025.

What? An entire country? Carbon neutral? While I know that developing countries emit considerably less carbon than countries like the United States do, this is a hard claim to swallow, especially in such a short timeframe.  Indeed, it seems that a lot of people have found this claim spurious – only Ethiopian news agencies reported on the declaration, and no multilateral or bilateral agencies supporting environmental efforts have mentioned it as a serious and credible commitment.

So is it possible?

According to the World Bank, in 2007, the United States’ CO2 emissions came to 19.34 metric tons per capita. South Africans emitted 8.98 metric tons per capita, Kenyans 0.30 metric tons per capita, and Ethiopians just 0.08 metric tons per capita. Ethiopia also has the advantage of low fossil fuel usage, as it only accounts for 8.52% of total energy usage. Fossil fuels account for 85.57% of the U.S. total, 87.74% of the South African total, and 19.57% of the Kenyan total. Ethiopia similarly has low electricity usage, at 40 kilowatts per capita. The United States uses 13638 kilowatts per capita, South Africa 4943, and Kenya 151. None of Ethiopia’s electricity comes from coal or natural gas, and 96.2% of its electricity already comes from hydroelectric sources, a strength that the Ethiopian EPA indicates it will continue to draw on. The EPA agent making the announcement claimed that Ethiopia has only tapped into 3% of its hydroelectricity capacity, and that it will continue to do so in its efforts to become carbon neutral.

Perhaps my reaction of disbelief in a carbon-neutral country is borne of living in a developed nation with such high emissions and energy usage. Even by comparison to its regional peers like Kenya, Ethiopia is already emitting very low amounts of CO2. Perhaps it could be capable of balancing that last bit somehow.

The indicator that gives me the most pause is this: 90.2% of Ethiopia’s total energy comes from combustible renewables and waste, like the burning of plant matter. Much of the country still relies on wood-burning to cook and heat their homes. Part of the focus of Ethiopia’s National Adaptation Program of Action focuses on the elimination of wood-burning stoves in favor of electric ones. Most of the programs funding these stoves focus on providing stoves or power grids that draw from renewable sources, but this will still increase the electricity needs of the country.

Part of the plan to go carbon neutral hinges on reforestation, but if burning biomass continues to be a central part of the production of energy for rural areas, it will be hard for tree planting efforts to keep up in order to offset carbon emissions.

My next question: Should Ethiopia go carbon-neutral by 2025? According to the World Bank’s 2005 statistics, the poverty headcount ratio in Ethiopia at $2 a day is 77.6% of the total population and the lowest 20% of the population only holds 9.28% of the income. Is it smart for Ethiopia to constrain economic growth with stringent environmental measures to live up to this promise to be carbon neutral?

I am by no means advocating that Ethiopia participate in the “race to the bottom” to lower its standards and attract foreign investment. However, it does seem that if Ethiopia cannot efficiently and rapidly respond to growing power needs due to industrialization or investment, it may find its economy stifled. Hydroelectric projects are slow to be built, are prone to problems, and often require communities to be relocated and farmland to be converted into a floodplain. None of these traits seem especially economically efficient.

Ethiopia’s energy needs have not finished growing, nor has its profile of energy sources finished fluctuating. Ethiopia also needs to allow its economy to be flexible in order to grow. It may be too early to commit to something as ambitious as a carbon-neutral economy in the next 15 years – but perhaps committing early will be what makes it possible. Either way, the country should think very carefully about how much of the cost of this promise will be borne by its poor.