China has achieved a feat unparalleled in modern history: In 30 years, the nation has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty; developed extensive infrastructure, commerce, and industry; and entered the ranks of middle-income countries. China now has the second-largest economy in the world, and it is on track to surpass the United States around 2030. Due to the recency and magnitude of China’s success, China has become the model that other nations look to when making their own development plans.
While it is entirely appropriate that leaders of developing countries seek to raise their citizens’ standard of living and develop their economies, they must avoid emulating China in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change and local pollution. Like the West before it, China built its development on the back of dirty energy: petroleum burned by vehicles and coal burned in power plants and industrial facilities.
China may have had little choice in how to power its growth, as clean energy options – such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars – were less technologically mature and considerably more expensive than they are today. Nonetheless, China’s ferocious consumption of fossil energy has led to severe human and environmental harms. More than 60% of the country’s groundwater is polluted with toxins, the soil is contaminated with arsenic and mercury, people in northern China die more than five years early due to air pollution, and China now contributes far more than any other nation to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to global warming.
In recent years, China has come to recognize the severity of the problems caused by fossil fuel-based development, and the government has begun taking dramatic and praiseworthy steps to curb pollution while using clean energy to power economic growth. China has cancelled more than 100 planned and under-construction coal plants, has temporarily shut down tens of thousands of factories as part of a new effort to rigorously enforce environmental laws, and has pledged to invest nearly $400 billion in clean energy by 2020 – creating up 10 to million green jobs in the process.
Growth In Developing Nations Could Bust The World’s Carbon Budget
Unlike polluted land and water that primarily affect local residents, greenhouse gas emissions have negative impacts at global scale. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that in order to have a 66% chance of keeping the world below 2°C of warming, humanity cannot emit more than one trillion tons of carbon dioxide, in total across time – our “carbon budget.”
As of 2017, humans have already emitted 62% of that limit, and we are on track to exceed the limit in 2036. In order to avoid 2°C of warming, global emissions must decline to near-zero by 2050 and must become negative (that is, removing more CO2 from the air than is added) in the second half of the century.
Even if global population and economic development were to remain stable, achieving these emissions cuts would require a heroic effort. But the world is not static. Many countries are still growing, industrializing, and urbanizing. GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) is a rough way to examine some of these development trends.
Many people are aware of China’s rise, but fewer notice that similar growth is happening across the developing world. In 2016, India’s PPP-adjusted GDP was the same as China’s just ten years before, in 2006. Sub-Saharan Africa, collectively, is roughly as productive as China was in 1997. Two other huge countries, Brazil and Indonesia, are similar to China in the mid-1990s. This growth will drive world energy demand – the International Energy Agency forecasts global energy demand will rise 30% between 2017 and 2040 (the equivalent of adding another China and India’s worth of demand), with two-thirds of that growth coming from developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region.
Many of these countries are pursuing carbon-intensive development strategies. India has enacted policies that have worsened air pollution, at terrible cost to the health of the Indian people. More than 100 coal plants are being constructed in Sub-Saharan Africa, and ironically, many of these are being funded and built by Chinese companies, even as China scales back its own use of coal. (Chinese companies are behind roughly 700 coal plant projects worldwide, many outside of China, as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.)
Developing Nations Can Affordably Power Growth With Clean Energy
If the bulk of the developing world deploys coal plants, petroleum-powered vehicles, inefficient industry, and other dirty technologies, humanity will vastly exceed its trillion-ton carbon budget, causing high levels of global warming. The resulting droughts, famine, heat stress, and sea level rise could lead to mass displacements, with numbers of refugees that dwarf those of recent conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war. Tens of millions of refugees, and the political reaction to them, may threaten the international order. Eventually, global warming could imperil human civilization.
Developing nations should have the full support of developed nations to build new economies and achieve prosperity for their citizens; they cannot be asked to pay the price for the past emissions of wealthy nations. Yet, the developing world cannot burn fossil fuels in the same manner that the West and China have done- it is impossible for these countries to receive a “fair share” of the Earth’s capacity to store carbon emissions, since too little capacity remains. Therefore, another path to prosperity must be followed.
To build their economies and improve the quality of life for their citizens, developing nations may be best served by deploying renewable energy, electric vehicles, highly efficient industry, net-zero energy buildings, and other green technologies, thereby “leapfrogging” over the dirty phase of economic development. Only through such leapfrogging can the dual goals of conquering global poverty and protection of the human species be accomplished. Fortunately, clean energy technologies are reaching cost parity with fossil fuels in time to meet growing demand in developing nations, and steps to improve energy efficiency are already cost-saving.
Global Poverty And Climate Change Must Be Solved Together
Developed nations, particularly the United States, should make strenuous efforts to support developing nations’ transition to sustainable prosperity, including the provision of financial assistance to enable them to deploy the necessary infrastructure in sufficient quantity.
China, the West, and other developed nations should follow the World Bank’s example by committing to fund neither coal plants nor upstream oil and gas projects anywhere in the world. China should use its expertise at manufacturing clean technology to export renewable energy systems, electric vehicles, and efficient building components.
Policymakers around the world must recognize that the problems of global poverty and climate change are interlinked. The only path to a prosperous and secure future involves technologies and policies that help to solve both problems at once.
By Jeffrey Rissman
Jeffrey is Head of Modeling & Energy Policy Expert at Energy Innovation and leads modeling efforts for Energy Policy Solutions.