Developing countries represent a large source of potential future carbon emissions as they seek to rapidly industrialize their economies. Yet, if the world is to hold future warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, these countries must identify a cleaner model of growth that relies on low- or zero-carbon fuels instead of fossil energy.
This tension between maintaining access to inexpensive energy and addressing climate change was on full display last fall when countries met at the COP26 international climate talks in Glasgow, Scotland. India, already the world’s third-biggest emitter, committed that half of its energy come from clean sources by 2030. At the same time, the country pushed for a key change to the final agreement: weakening language from a “phase out” of coal to a “phase down.” India is part of a cohort of countries seeking aid from richer nations to help them make the transition away from fossil fuels.
How can developing countries balance their need for reliable energy with goals to transition away from fossil fuels? Are there signs of progress? And, what responsibility do developed nations bear for helping developing countries confront climate change?
On May 10, EPIC hosted a conversation on climate policy in the developing world with Indian Member of Parliament Priyanka Chaturvedi, former U.S. Deputy Climate Envoy Jonathan Pershing, program director of environment at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and EPIC Director Michael Greenstone. The event was moderated by EPIC’s journalism fellow, Lisa Friedman, climate policy reporter for The New York Times.
The Global Energy Challenge
Priyanka Chaturvedi set up the conversation as being one about climate justice. She acknowledged that as a developing country India would face “double the injustice of climate change.” The brunt of climate impacts would be centered on India and other developing countries, with India presently in the midst of one of the worst heat waves on record. But at the same time, India, and its developing world counterparts that rely heavily on fossil fuels for growth, would be expected to be at the center of finding solutions to address climate change “at the expense of our economy,” she said.
Greenstone termed this the “global energy challenge.” He said that if you look at it purely as a climate problem you are missing the bigger picture. Societies need to balance the need to have inexpensive and reliable energy that can unlock income growth and high standards of living, while also addressing air pollution and climate change.
“So really, I don’t think there’s just a climate challenge,” Greenstone said. Instead, the challenge is to balance these three goals. “And those choices are going to reflect differences in income levels, differences in geography, differences in values and trade between the future and the present.”
Friedman acknowledged that in the United States the tradeoffs just got harder as the Ukraine crisis and higher fuel prices have forced the Biden administration to encourage more domestic fossil fuel drilling while also saying climate change is important.
Pershing said confronting climate change does not have an instantaneous solution, and so, one must think of solving it over longer periods.
“We are not well served by saying I have to cut everything tomorrow or I fail,” said Pershing. If one looks at climate change over a longer period, the important solution becomes building the right infrastructure. In his view, building new fossil fuel infrastructure will prevent the world from reaching important climate targets.
But Chaturvedi acknowledged that in India and developing countries, the decision to build fossil fuel infrastructure must be placed in the context of needed energy security and energy access.
To this, Friedman asked what is the right way to address global equity at a moment when we are perilously close to 1.5 degrees Celsius—keeping in mind the deep differences in energy access and energy security?
Greenstone said that while the politics of rich countries providing aid to poor countries is complicated, we can look at the fundamental problem: fossil fuels are too inexpensive.
“Something that would incentivize leveling the playing field so that demand choices, people’s choices, would reflect the damages associated with their consumption, I think that would be terrific,” Greenstone said. “I worry that sometimes we talk too much about whether we should build more import or export terminals for natural gas or more solar panels or whatever it is, and we’re kind of missing what’s driving the whole thing, which is the demand side and it’s very, very unequal playing field that gives the fossil fuels just an enormous subsidy. And it’s not for free. We pay for it with shorter, and sicker lives. We pay for it with higher chances of disruptive climate change.”
The challenge is that while an easy solution would be to have a price on carbon and the money would go to those most in need, the politics of this are much more difficult than the “blackboard solution.”
Redirecting investments, Pershing said, seems to be an easier way of providing support than solving the broader equity problem. The equity problem is one that is not just between rich and poor nations. It is also within nations, with some segments of the population bearing the brunt of climate change, energy access problems, and pollution. Solving these inequities within countries is difficult. It becomes that much harder when it involves the transfer of funds out of the country.
Chaturvedi agreed that if we put our heads together and “realign our resources, realign our tech know-how, our research know-how and partner more” it would be a win-win for both sides.
How Achievable is the 1.5 Degrees Celsius Goal?
Greenstone said he believes keeping warming below the 1.5-degree Celsius target is not an achievable goal. The reason being the problem is not all about the climate. It is about balancing the climate problem with other challenges like energy access.
“If that was the only thing we cared about, it’s achievable,” Greenstone said. “But we care about multiple things. And in many parts of the world those other things often on a balance end up on the heavier side.”
If we cannot meet the 1.5-degree Celsius goal, what are the political ramifications? Friedman asked.
Pershing said we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion if it hadn’t been for the fact that we have an international commitment that we’re all trying to meet.
“So it doesn’t mean we’re going to get there, but it means that if you wanted to get there, you certainly have to have the political context for a conversation. And the goal setting process generates that in every country,” he said.
Pershing also noted that every tenth of a degree matters.
“There is a big difference between 1.5 and 2. I don’t think anyone is arguing that that’s not a big change. I’m saying that if you get 1.6 instead of 1.5, would you have failed? That’s not quite fair,” he said. “But the numbers suggest that the delta is coral reefs. The delta probably at least a meter, if not long-term, three to five meters of sea level [rise]. The delta is clearly a disease vector change. The delta is almost certainly substantial species loss. So, the difference there is enormous. It’s just that every tenth does matter. And I don’t think it’s an on/off question.”
Chaturvedi said that whether or not the goal is met, having these international agreements is important.
“I think it is important to have a consensus and to have these ambitious goals,” she said. “It’s always good to try and work towards convergences and the common challenges that we face.”