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Controlling Emissions in the Developing World: A Dissenting View

by | December 11th, 2009 | 03:33 pm

In a recent op-ed in the Financial Times, Nancy Birdsall and Arvind Subramanianasserted that rich countries were unfairly blaming the developing world for contributing to global warming, and they called for a shift away from focusing on emissions and toward exploiting “the latest available clean technologies” for poor countries. Unfortunately, their recommendation dangerously downplays the importance of developing country carbon emissions in causing climate change. It is critical that the importance of these emissions be recognized, lest climate change cause additional misery for the poor in the decades to come.

Birdsall and Subramanian’s piece implies that developed countries are asking developing countries to make immediate emissions reduction commitments as part of a climate agreement at Copenhagen or in other negotiations. But US and other climate negotiators merely expect major developing countries, such as China and India, to take steps in that direction. Leading up to Copenhagen, China has offered a 40–45-percent emissions intensity reduction by 2020, and India a 20–25-percent reduction. While these concessions do not represent absolute emissions reductions in the near term, they will stem the acceleration of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and build capacity to make reductions in the future.

Birdsall and Subramanian’s claim that “emissions are not the primary issue” in climate negotiations does not make sense. The whole point of climate negotiations is to drastically reduce the amount of global GHG emissions in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. To be sure, there currently exists a huge gap in emissions per capita between developed and developing countries. Whereas the average American emits over 20 tons of GHGs per year, the average Chinese emits 5.5 tons, the average Brazilian emits 5.4 tons, and the average Indian emits 1.7 tons.1 Developing countries are thus justified in calling for developed countries to reduce absolute emissions levels first.

But despite the developed countries’ historical responsibility for global warming, the reality is that developed countries alone cannot reduce global GHG emissions to a sufficiently low level. David Wheeler, senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has calculated that under business as usual, cumulative Southern emissions will surpass Northern emissions by 2025. In order to avoid a climatic disaster, India, China, and Brazil need to reduce emissions growth now and absolute levels within a few decades.

It is true as a political reality that many in the United States Congress say they will not sign on to limits on emissions if there is no similar commitment in the developing world. But developing countries need to limit emissions growth, not in order to appease the developed world, but rather to ensure their own growth and prosperity. William R. Cline, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, estimates that without efforts to slow or reverse current trends, climate change will reduce net agricultural revenue by over 90 percent per hectare in India’s northeastern region by 2080. Without carbon fertilization, developing countries overall would lose about 20 percent of agricultural output potential.2 In addition, 80 percent of those who live less than 5 meters above sea level are in developing countries. Even a one-meter sea rise—on the low end of what is possible—would cause 60 million environmental refugees.

In this context, Birdsall and Subramanian’s emphasis on parity of energy access misses the point. The goal should be to promote a high standard of living for all but at the same time not to promote use of energy. Birdsall and Subramanian hint at this in their op-ed when they advocate technology and energy efficiency improvements, but some of the amenities that they cite as basic energy services are actually not that basic. A car, for example, is not necessary for a first-world lifestyle. Transportation can be accomplished more cleanly and effectively through public transit.

To be sure, certain amenities cannot be gained without use of fossil fuels. It is true that “in the developing world, billions of people are now cooking over health-harming wood fires in shanty towns (rather than receiving piped gas and electricity), [and] doing backbreaking hoe farming (not operating tractors).” But it is misleading to say that “cutting emissions would push them from just above subsistence back, literally, to the dark ages.” In fact, provision of stoves could actually be boons for the climate as well as development. Wood-burning cookstoves are the biggest sources of black carbon in Africa and Asia. Black carbon currently contributes to 18 percent of global warming and could contribute to almost half of Arctic warming. Replacement of these cookstoves with stoves powered by electricity—especially solar power, as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in India are currently trying to do—could reduce overall GHG emissions while improving human health.

In any case, Birdsall and Subramanian ignore the real source of developing-country GHGs. It’s not the poor using electricity to power their stoves; it’s carbon-intensive manufacturing. In China, the industrial sector comprises 81 percent of electricity use; in India, this number is 65 percent.3

Birdsall and Subramanian suggest that countries should abandon a focus on emissions for developing countries and simply accelerate development of clean technology in order to come as close to equality with the advanced world in energy services as possible. This solution is flawed for two reasons. First, it would seem to fly in the face of their assertion that a 50-percent global reduction in GHGs by 2050 is necessary to avert catastrophe. Without carbon pricing or regulatory constraints specifically designed to curb emissions, it is highly unlikely that sufficient progress will be made.

Second, Birdsall and Subramanian imply that the clean technology required to develop sustainably is far off in the future. It is true that technologies such as carbon capture and sequestration and electric cars are not yet commercially viable. But countries such as India and China are not even using the technologies available today. Both countries’ carbon intensities of manufacturing are several times higher than those of US and European manufacturing sectors.

Developing countries need to take advantage of their ability to “leapfrog” from already-developed technologies to installation of clean energy and transportation infrastructure now so that expensive changes to this infrastructure are not necessary in the future. McKinsey estimates that China can limit its emissions increase to 10 percent over 2005 levels by 2030—50 percent below business as usual—by adopting technologies that have already been technically developed [pdf]. The same report warns that these technologies must be adopted in the next five to ten years in order to avoid lock-in of carbon-intensive infrastructure.

It is apparent in the paper on which the op-ed is based that Birdsall and Subramanian are aware of the necessity to reduce global GHGs. And in fact, their suggestion of emissions intensity targets makes sense, provided that these targets are calibrated to produce eventual cuts in emissions. But this suggestion seems to run counter to the authors’ earlier dismissal of carbon emissions as the main problem. If it is true that a focus on emissions is the source of acrimony in international climate negotiations, it is hard to see how emissions’ intensity targets improve the situation.

Yes, the need for more equitable distribution of energy in developing countries is desperate. According to the Energy and Resources Institute, nearly half of India’s population still has no access to reliable electricity, and access often comes with major outages. The developed world has a moral imperative to aggressively promote clean energy worldwide. China has already made an excellent start to developing clean energy infrastructure, with a huge “green stimulus” package passed this year and a vehicle fuel efficiency standard surpassing that of the United States. But the focus should not be taken off emissions, which if not curbed could prevent developing countries’ economies from growing and thus swell the poverty rolls in the world’s poorest countries.

Meera Fickling is a research analyst at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.


1. Climate Analysis Indicators Tool, World Resources Institute, 2009.

2. William Cline. 2007. Global Warming and Agriculture: Impact Estimates by Country. Washington: Peterson Institute and Center for Global Development.

3. Residential electricity use amounts to 12 percent of total electricity use in China and 24 percent of electricity use in India. These are significant percentages, but they include the electricity use of the rich and the middle class.

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