Poor Countries Shouldn’t Sacrifice Growth to Fight Climate Change

A man walks through a flooded field to his home in Mikocheni area of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on April 12 Photograph by Daniel Hayduk/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, a draft of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on the potential impact of rising global temperatures was leaked to the press. According to news accounts, the panel is set to report that the world may soon approach a temperature where the Greenland ice sheet starts irreversibly melting. Over a few centuries, that could raise sea levels by as much as 23 feet. The Obama administration, meanwhile, disclosed that it’s looking for a strong agreement on carbon emissions at next year’s United Nations Climate Summit—the strongest it can forge without needing U.S. Senate consent.

Obama’s push for more aggressive global action should be especially welcome news to poor countries, since the developing world will be most affected by climate change. Yet developing countries need more economic growth and more energy today—and nothing should stand in the way of that progress. Although it would be nice to believe there’s no trade-off between sustainability and development, such a trade-off undeniably exists. And sustainability for tomorrow should not be burdened on the world’s poorest today.

There’s a widespread, understandable desire to pretend that poor countries don’t need to pollute to develop—that they can escape their poverty without increasing carbon dioxide emissions, for example. A set of “Sustainable Development Goals” being negotiated for signature by a gathering of the world’s leaders at the UN in 2015 will almost certainly call for limiting climate change, preserving biodiversity, and protecting forests and oceans alongside poverty reduction and improvements in global health. It will likely say little or nothing about the trade-offs among these goals and instead suggest they’re all mutually reinforcing pillars of the same overarching agenda. But that’s just not true—or, at least, it’s not true yet.

Take energy use: Global greenhouse gas emissions actually climbed faster from 2000 to 2010 than they did in the previous 30 years, according to the leaked IPCC document. That’s not because of rich countries—the U.S. (PDF) and the U.K. (PDF), among others, have seen declining emissions over the past decade. Instead, carbon emissions have gone up because developing countries have been growing rapidly, and energy consumption has increased as a result. Greater energy use remains central to development in low- and middle-income countries. And the cheapest, most reliable form of energy remains fossil fuels.

Climate change is not the greatest challenge faced by the developing world today. The IPCC report suggests as an incomplete estimate that the cost of warming levels of 2.5C above preindustrial levels might reach 2 percent of global income. That burden will fall more heavily on the developing world. And as warming levels rise above 2.5C, the costs increase exponentially. But it’s worth comparing the potential cost of climate change over the next century with the growth rates over the next couple of decades required to end absolute destitution in poor countries. To get close to eliminating $1.25-a-day poverty by 2030, developing countries home to the world’s poorest people will have to grow at about 4.5 percent each year from 2012 to 2030.

To get anywhere near U.S. quality of life, incomes and energy use in the poorest countries need to increase by orders of magnitude. Consider that the average income in a country such as Tanzania is 3 percent of average incomes in the U.S. (adjusted for purchasing power). Doubling Tanzania’s income would still leave it desperately poor. Electricity conception per person in the East African country is 92 kilowatt-hours per year. Americans burn through that much electricity every two and a half days.

This same logic applies to China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. In 2007 more than a quarter of the population of the country still lived on less than $2 a day—that’s about one-seventh of the U.S. poverty line. China needs to see considerably more economic growth and energy production if it is to bring the bulk of its population up to levels of consumption we’d still consider destitution in the U.S.

Nonetheless, there are things that poorer countries could and should do today that are both in their immediate self-interest and that also could help the global environment. One example: Fuel subsidies in developing countries still amount to about $1 trillion, according to the International Monetary Fund. In 2010, Iran slashed its massive fossil fuel subsidies and handed the savings to 80 percent of the population. For poor people, the transfers were worth more than half of their income. That one policy reduced carbon emissions, increased economic efficiency, and reduced inequality all at the same time.

And it remains unarguably true that if we are to avoid climate Armageddon, poor countries would have to become rich using far less carbon than today’s wealthy countries did. But before today’s wealthy countries ask the world’s poorest people to switch to renewable energy, they should make sure that renewables are the cheapest form of energy poor people can access.

Rich countries should be providing support to roll out modern energy infrastructure; researching and developing cheaper ways to generate (and, if necessary, store) renewable power; and, as a last resort, providing subsidies for solar, wind, hydroelectric, nuclear, or other renewable electricity production in poor countries. So far, rich countries have largely failed on that front, providing somewhere around 0.2 percent of developing-country gross domestic product (PDF) in financing each year for climate change mitigation and adaptation, largely out of existing aid and development finance budgets.

It’s a legitimate worry of developing countries that aid money formerly used to finance growth, health, and education will be siphoned off to support adaptation and mitigation—even if these countries would rather the money be used in other ways. A tax on greenhouse gas emissions in the rich world might be an appropriate source of revenue to provide additional investment for research on reducing the cost and increasing the reliability of renewables, or funding climate change mitigation in the poor world. But regardless of how rich countries choose to raise the additional financing, one thing is clear: People who use less electricity than the average American refrigerator, who have incomes one-fiftieth those of the U.S., and who die of conditions that can be cured by antibiotics that cost cents should not be asked to sacrifice even more today for the sake of tomorrow. They are sacrificing enough already.

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