Controlling Emissions in the Developing World: A Dissenting View

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.

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