Are current climate initiatives unfair to developing nations?
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World leaders are gathered in Egypt for COP27, a global summit to share ideas about mitigating the climate crisis. The planet faces irreversible tipping points if the temperature warms by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
To stave off the worst effects, global greenhouse gas emissions must drop by 45% by 2030. However, the climate initiatives currently in place will cut emissions only 5% to 10% by that date.
Rahul Tongia, a senior fellow with the Centre for Social and Economic Progress in New Delhi and a nonresident senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, argues that the path to reducing the production of heat-trapping gases is through “practical and equitable emissions trajectories.”
Tongia believes that developed nations must aggressively cut their emissions instead of asking developing nations to “leapfrog” fossil fuels to renewable energy. “Poorer countries already face the brunt of climate change, but they want to do their fair share of mitigation,” he wrote in a piece published by Brookings. “They may even do some amount of unfair share. But this cannot mean climate absolutism.”
“Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke to Tongia about the relationship between energy technology and economic growth and how current climate initiatives are unfair toward developing nations. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Kai Ryssdal: The thrust of this piece that you wrote that I mentioned is basically that developing economies are being asked to leapfrog a layer of energy technology — the fossil fuel layer — and you say that’s, first of all, not fair and second of all, not really workable. Explain it, would you?
Rahul Tongia: Absolutely. A lot of us have heard wind and solar are very cheap. People are putting up rooftop solar on their roof. But the reality is, it may look inexpensive for a little bit of energy. But if you look at the entire economy, it’s not just electricity, but there’s transport, there are industrial processes. Decarbonizing those is very, very expensive — especially to get rid of all of it. So that’s the practical problem. In terms of fairness, look at the differences between countries in terms of their emissions. We’re not talking that countries differ by a couple of percent or tens of percent, but a dozens of times difference in the per-capita energy use, and therefore carbon emissions that countries put out. And there is a fair amount of evidence that a lot of the economic growth that countries have had has been because they’ve had access to secure and reliable energy. And a lot of that historically has been fossil fuels.
Ryssdal: And so basically, what we have here is rich countries saying to the poor countries, “Hey, look, just skip that whole fossil fuel thing that we relied on for 150 years and grew enormously, and go straight to those renewables, and everything’s gonna be fine.”
Tongia: I mean, there is an element of truth to leapfrogging. It has improved. A dozen or two dozen years ago, a lot of renewable technology was prohibitively expensive. That’s no longer the case. So the good news, as I see it, is a lot of the growth in developing countries and worldwide — if you look at what are we investing in for energy — is cleantech. The problem is, whatever “makes sense” that is market viable isn’t enough to keep the total global emissions in check if we want to have a realistic shot of keeping the temperature rises within 1½ degrees Celsius or even 2 degrees Celsius. That’s the problem.
Ryssdal: Let me ask you kind of a more subjective question. And I’ll point out here that we’re talking to you from New Delhi, where you live and you work. What is the — this is gonna sound flip, but it’s really not — what is the climate vibe there, right? What is the climate change awareness and willingness there to take on these really difficult challenges, given what developed economies are saying to developing nations?
Tongia: It’s all relative because you have to also come back to income levels. If you tell someone that it costs a couple of cents extra per kilowatt-hour to go green, in the U.S. that’s much more affordable than it is in parts of Africa or India or South Asia. What the poor really need is electricity access to improve their quality of life. And the good news is giving the 1 billion people in the world who lack electricity or good-quality electricity connections — you give them electricity, it’s going to add 0.25% only of current global emissions. That’s not much. That’s if you powered them entirely through coal, and we’re not going to do it entirely through coal. They need electricity access. And then in parallel, let’s make sure whatever fuels that grid is going to be as clean as possible.
Ryssdal: Let me get you back to the quality of life, standard of living thing. Do you suppose it is possible to raise the standard of living and improve the quality of life of people in the poorest developing economies without them using fossil fuels?
Tongia: In the short run, I don’t think that’s possible. But here’s the very good news. Like I gave the example of adding electricity access for the poor. Even if they went for a little bit of fossil fuels, it’s not going to change the needle that much because that consumption from the poor is so, so low. Everyone, the world has to get to net zero to keep us on track. Now, 2050 for the world cannot mean 2050 for every country equally, so let them emit a little bit. Let’s try and reduce that as much as possible. But for the high emitters, you don’t have much left. You need to go on a downward trajectory aggressively.
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