Climate Change Is Now in the Developing World’s Hands

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Nov. 29 2013 8:45 AM

Climate Change Is Now in the Developing World’s Hands

Can their economic self-interest help us all?

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Further evidence that climate concerns aren’t driving energy decisions came earlier this month. Australia’s new conservative government floated bills to repeal the country’s tax on carbon emissions; it introduced an alternative carbon-reduction program, but many observers say that alternative won’t achieve the same degree of emission cuts. Days later, Japan, the home of Kyoto, announced it was abandoning one of its key carbon commitments. Japanese leaders said the country no longer would adhere to an earlier promise to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Instead, the government announced a less aggressive commitment that amounts to a 3 percent decrease in emissions over the same time period. The political switch infuriated environmentalists but is a concession to economic reality. In the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear accident, Japan has idled the nuclear plants that were a carbon-free source of roughly one-third of the country’s electricity. Even as Japan races to ramp up power from solar and wind, it’s firing up coal-fired power plants, boosting the country’s emissions. The Japanese government’s top spokesman told reporters in Tokyo earlier this month that, particularly given his country’s post-Fukushima move away from nuclear power, its earlier pledge to slash emissions 25 percent “was totally unfounded and wasn’t feasible.”

Japan’s announcement elicited righteous indignation from China. China, which as a developing country was exempted from the Kyoto climate accord’s requirements, recently overtook the United States as the world’s top carbon emitter. As result, it has come under increasing international pressure to take on a carbon-reduction pledge. But Chinese climate negotiators at the Warsaw conference made clear their government has no intention of doing so, particularly when industrialized countries such as Japan are backpedaling.

China’s own emissions are soaring—not just because China has a population of 1.4 billion people but also because China manufactures for the world. And yet there are signs that China—yes, China!—may end up curbing its emissions more than any other country. It has pledged to ramp up the proportion of electricity it generates from nuclear and renewable energy. It has imposed relatively stringent fuel-efficiency requirements for cars. It’s rolling out a bevy of policies designed to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants.

Dunhuang, Gansu Province, China
A worker inspects solar panels at in Dunhuang, China.

Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

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Why? Not primarily to curb carbon dioxide emissions. China is beginning to move toward a cleaner energy mix for reasons far more palpable than a colorless, odorless gas. The air in China’s major cities is often so dirty that it stings the eyes and sickens the lungs; that’s a public-health problem that could become a political threat to Beijing’s rulers. In addition, the push toward cleaner energy sources is creating new jobs and new export industries for China—another tangible political benefit.

China isn’t the only developing country that may end up curbing its greenhouse gas emissions for reasons other than climate concern. Brazil in recent years has markedly slowed deforestation in the Amazon—a major contributor to overall greenhouse gas concentrations, since trees consume carbon dioxide as they grow. In large part, that success is due to cash payments made to farmers who refrain from cutting down trees. Some of that cash comes from European governments and investors looking for cheap ways to satisfy requirements that they fight climate change. Yet studies in Brazil suggest that slowing deforestation brings economic benefits of its own. By focusing farmers’ attention on land that’s already cleared, rather than on clearing additional land, slowing deforestation tends to increase agricultural output, and thus income, from land already being farmed, according to some researchers.

Santarém, Para State, Brazil
This wheat plantation near Santarém, Brazil, used to be virgin Amazon rainforest.

Photo by Nacho Doce/Reuters

In the industrialized world, economic self-interest has gotten a bad environmental name: It’s the reason, critics say, for the rise in energy consumption that’s contributing to climate change. But in the developing world, where the fight against global warming will be won or lost, economic self-interest may prove the solution.

Jeffrey Ball is scholar-in-residence at Stanford’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. He was environment editor at the Wall Street Journal.

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