Hope In Faraway Lands

Hope In Faraway Lands

I've provided evidence of the impact of behavior change at scale, and before that, the idea that technology has been an enabler of the crisis and is now a catalyst for getting past it (as long as we don't believe in magic wands).

But what about the elephant in the room: who exactly is supposed to be changing their behavior? How quickly?

If you follow the climate crisis, you are bound to hear about the skyrocketing emissions of China, India, Brazil, and other developing countries. And that's a problem, because it seems like those emissions are allowing for huge gains in quality of life. How can we reduce emissions while also giving billions the opportunity to flourish?

In this chapter and the next one, I will argue that focusing on the aggregate emissions of these countries serves to obscure two of the biggest sources of emissions—affluent nations in the West and affluent people everywhere.

Let's take a detour through the developing world.

What has happened in the developing world?

Some Comforting Facts (For A Change)

Here is the (very) good news: humanity is more prosperous than it has ever been before. Worldwide development is at an all-time high and the number of people living in extreme poverty (less than US$1.90 per day) has fallen dramatically from 36 percent of the world’s population in 1990 to 8.4 percent in 2019.

Developing countries currently boast annual growth rates of as high as 6 percent. If these trends continue, then it is expected that by 2030 the middle class residing in China and India alone will outnumber middle-class populations anywhere else in the world by 2 to 1, accounting for 59 percent of all middle-class consumption.

In this case, growing the middle class isn't just economic shorthand for increasing the number of people who will buy more "stuff," either—it's actually a massive step toward a more just society. Wealth inequality is still a big problem, but the past thirty years have seen astronomical rates of poverty alleviation resulting in a better quality of life for billions across the globe. The formation of a "global middle class" should result in improved health outcomes and life expectancy, strengthened industry, and a more buoyant economy for everyone.

Take the example of Ghana, whose gross national income (GNI) was only US$370 in 1995. Today, the country boasts increased educational outcomes, a life expectancy that has risen by a decade in a single generation, and a 2019 GNI of US$2220.

And in another corner of the so-called "Global South," we're seeing similar patterns—since 1990, India's Human Development Index, which offers a simple measurement of overall well-being, has increased by over 50%. Rapid urbanization has taken hold in its megacities, adding as much as 900 million square meters of habitable floor space per year to accommodate urban population growth.

Yes, Fossil Fuels Are The Catalyst

But this growth is not without its costs, hence all the moaning in the Western climate intelligentsia.

At its root is increased cheap fossil fuel energy consumption. In 1995, Ghana produced only 13.7 grams of CO2CO_2 equivalent per megajoule of energy (gCO2/MJgCO_2/MJ). That rose to 41gCO2/MJgCO_2/MJ in 2019 in proportion with Ghana's discovery, and subsequent production, of offshore crude oil.

In India, energy infrastructure is also deeply entwined with rising prosperity. The country's energy demands have more than doubled since 2000, with low-cost coal supplying most of those demands (44%). If not for coal power, development at India's current scale would simply be unaffordable. In 2019, China alone produced more greenhouse gas emissions than the rest of the developed world while also moving up 25 places on global prosperity indexes.

Average per capita energy consumption and the human development index in 2012. Source:
Average per capita energy consumption and the human development index in 2012. Source: Energising Human Development, UNDP, CC BY IGO

We can see this pattern all over the world—prosperity in the developing world is closely intertwined with the availability of low-cost energy, regardless of how clean it is. In fact, studies have suggested a causal relationship between poverty and poor access to affordable energy.

Why might this be? Cheap energy sources are vital for ensuring widespread infrastructural progress like better living quarters, household utilities, sanitation, and all the necessities developed countries take for granted.

Access to cheap energy, in turn, relates to an increase in spending power, which makes more comfortable lifestyles attainable. As a result of this spending power, fewer children die, more children receive an education, and the average lifespan increases. That's why, in developing nations, we are seeing opportunities for whole communities to escape the cycle of poverty.

This seems to present a Gordian knot of sorts—should we deny billions a higher quality of life or let our planet burn from the emissions needed to provide it to them?

Per capita. Per capita? Per capita!

Well, as it turns out, this supposed dilemma is far from the complete story. Yes, developing countries are relying on cheaper fossil-fuel-based energy. Yes, this is contributing to developing nations' CO2CO_2 outputs. But developing countries don't bear as much responsibility for our current situation as some suggest. Let's take a look at three metrics that fill out the picture:

  • Cumulative Emissions:
  • When we look at year-long stats, like the one I mentioned earlier about China's 2019 emissions, we downplay the centuries-long impact that developed countries have had on the climate, otherwise known as a country’s cumulative emissions.

    Since 1750, the 38 member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have emitted four times more CO2CO_2 than China, a large majority of which will remain in the atmosphere for centuries to come. Remember when I told you England was burning coal back in 1620? Well, the atmosphere is still paying for that.

    In fact, cumulative emissions data makes the case that developed nations are far more responsible for the climate's current state than any developing nation, given that industrialized countries began polluting the planet centuries ago and continue to do so today.

  • Consumption-based Emissions Accounting:
  • Statistics on CO2CO_2 emissions often focus on where emissions are produced. But many developing countries are hard at work producing goods that those in the affluent West will consume.

    So instead of using so-called "territorial accounting," it might be more accurate to look at consumption-based (or trade-adjusted) accounting, which focuses on where goods that necessitate the release of emissions are ultimately consumed rather than simply where emissions are produced.

    This kind of accounting shows us that almost every developed country is a net-importer of CO2CO_2, while most developing countries are net-exporters of CO2CO_2.

  • And now let's move on to "per capita"
  • If you still don't believe that developed nations are the real offenders when it comes to emissions, then take the per capita measurements of the largest emitters and marvel at how unbalanced the share of CO2CO_2 truly is:

Despite outsourcing a chunk of the CO2CO_2 it eventually imports and consumes, the world’s second-largest polluter, the USA, has annual emissions of 17.6 tons per capita. In comparison, China’s annual emissions come in significantly lower at 10.5 tons per capita, even though they've tripled their emissions in the last thirty years.

So developed nations have emitted greenhouse gases for centuries, frequently offload production of emissions-laden goods to developing countries, and continue to maintain an extremely high annual per capita emissions rate.

What does this all mean? If behavior change is necessary to reduce emissions, there is a great deal for the affluent—nations and people—to get focused on without nattering on about the dilemma of development and emissions.

Having said that, it will be useful to take a quick look at "leapfrogging", something that is hopefully going to happen in developing countries over time and which will enable them to avoid some of the more horrible mistakes made in the West.

A Quick Aside on "Leapfrogging"

Examples are emerging throughout the developing world that suggest development doesn’t actually have to drive up CO2CO_2 emissions. Developing countries have the opportunity to take a different path than the environmentally disastrous one I described in How We Did It. With renewable energy costs falling steeply across the globe, developing countries are positioned to pivot away from fossil fuels and embrace clean, cheap energy, a concept known as "leapfrogging."

Leapfrogging to renewable energy sources is especially powerful for economic growth in nations that don't have their own energy resources, since their economic development currently depends on the consumption of energy produced elsewhere.

Leapfrogging: an example

Flor-García-San Jacinto Geothermal Plant, Nicaragua Source: GeoRising,
Flor-García-San Jacinto Geothermal Plant, Nicaragua Source: GeoRising, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Nicaragua is a nation that produces no oil of its own and has to rely on imports for energy production. After unstable oil prices imposed months of rolling blackouts during an energy crisis in 2005, the small Central American country was forced to consider alternative methods of energy production closer to home.

By using the country's unique geography to its benefit and introducing sugarcane biofuels, geothermal energy, and wind power, Nicaragua's alternative energy production now generates 72 percent of its electricity. Leapfrogging has resulted in decreased carbon emissions and lower electricity per-unit costs across the country.

The Bottom Line

A massive inequity in greenhouse gas emissions exists, and it is perpetuated by income-based and geographical divisions. Affluent nations, and most of all the affluent who live there (but also the affluent in developing countries) that started this crisis, must lead the way.

While even the disadvantaged in developed nations consume more than five times as much energy as those in developing countries, the burden of behavioral change lies primarily on the affluent. Why just the affluent? The wasteful behavior of the wealthiest people in the world — in developed and developing countries—is a significant driver of climate change, and slashing their consumption will have the largest impact.

So now let's get to the affluent.

More Reading:

The connection between fossil fuels and economic development

Territorial emissions