The developing climate for change


Despite accounting for a rising share of greenhouse gas emissions, developing nations are investing heavily in the technology that could help address climate change

In the global discussion over who’s going to do what about climate change, the argument that the rapid industrialisation of developing countries will render Western emissions cuts pointless is one of the biggest obstacles to a binding international deal. 

China Wind farm
China Wind farm

And yet, whilst it’s certainly true that countries such as China – which accounts for more than a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – have a critical role to play, it’s unfair to assume that a developing world re-run of a carbon intensive industrial revolution is inevitable.

Indeed, just last week, environment ministers from the so-called BASIC countries (Brazil, South Africa, India and China), who were meeting ahead of next month’ crucial UN climate change summit, went as far as claiming that their nations are taking more concrete action on climate change than many in the West.

These claims are debatable. According to the latest UN emissions gap report developed countries’ share in global emissions is going down whilst the developing world’s contribution is increasing. But despite this, it would be wrong to say that developing countries have their heads in the sand.

Brazil, the world’s tenth largest energy consumer and one of the fastest growing economies on the planet – is also home to one of the world’s fastest growing renewable energy sectors. In 2009, 85 per cent of its domestic electricity came from renewable sources (primarily sugarcane ethanol).

India, the world’s third biggest electricity market and third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, has ambitious plans to put solar at the heart of its energy mix.

And China, frequently portrayed as the global villain in emissions terms, is investing more money in renewables than any other country on the planet.

What’s more, there are also signs that the developing world’s much reported resistance to limiting emissions is beginning to change.

For instance, whilst coal use in China is predicted to continue to soar in the short term, growing public pressure on the government to clean up its smog-choked cities is beginning to drive change. Chinese authorities recently announced a prohibition on new coal-fired power plants around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, whilst Beijing reportedly plans to ban the use of coal in the city by 2020

As long as the emissions gap between developing and developed nations continues to widen, the old sticking points to a global climate change deal are unlikely to disappear. But with a growing worldwide consensus on the need to tackle climate change, the prospects for a meaningful global agreement are arguably less remote than they have ever been.

If the world’s governments are to reach a deal it’s now vitally important that the developing world is encouraged not demonised, that its investments are celebrated, and that we in the west stop using it as an excuse to water down our own efforts.