Economic development. It was the fundamental challenge of the postcolonial era, embodying an economic, political, moral imperative: How could the poor world in the global south become as rich as the rich nations of the north? The question was never satisfactorily answered. Strategies hawked from opposite ideological corners mostly failed to deliver.
Then the question changed. As the heads of state and government filing in from around the world to Sharm-Al-Sheikh in Egypt for the United Nations’ 27th climate change summit might put it, the new challenge of global development can be posed as: How can the poor south become as rich as the rich north without broiling?
Climate change poses a stark challenge to the development imperative. Floods and drought, hurricanes and heatwaves will make the path out of poverty much more difficult. But trying to limit climate change poses its own set of problems for the developing world.
Few have grasped the full implications of the additional climate roadblock. But it is disrupting the “development agenda,” inserting new tension between the aspirations of people in developing countries and policymakers in the world of the rich. Leaders in the global south, already sceptical of industrialised nations’ interest in assisting their development, have a powerful new reason to distrust ostensible do-gooders from the developed world.
It’s baked in by now that if progress in the combat against climate change continues along the same path as the last decade or two, the world will broil even if the poor stay poor. The carbon spewed into the atmosphere thus far has drastically lengthened the odds of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above the average of the late 19th century. The latest analysis by the UN Environment Program estimates that pledges for countries around the world put the global temperature on track to rise around 2.5C by the end of the century.
Moreover, the aspiration of achieving “net zero” CO2 emissions by 2050 looks like a fantasy. By the admittedly conservative projections of the US Energy Information Administration, we are set to blow past this target several times over. The EIA’s baseline projection — which is based on current economic and demographic trends and assumes steady progress on decarbonisation along historical pathways — has it that carbon emissions from energy use in 2050 will total some 43 billion tons of CO2, up from 36 billion last year.
This is partly because rich nations already have a lot of capital and technology, which will help them decarbonise their economies more quickly. What’s more, their populations are barely growing.
The population of poorer nations outside the OECD, by contrast, will grow by 1.5 billion people over the period, according to the EIA baseline projection. These people will aspire to higher living standards than their forebears. Improving living standards, everywhere and always throughout human history, has required consuming more energy. That’s where most of the CO2 emissions will come from.
The growth of CO2 emissions can be decomposed into the product of changes in population, GDP per person, the amount of energy needed to produce GDP and the amount of carbon emitted for each unit of energy used.
Current efforts to combat climate change focus on the last two elements: energy efficiency and carbon intensity, which can be improved with technology. The other two needles are very hard to move. Still, let’s say we could stop the world population from growing. If other things remain equal, we would still blast way past our carbon budget.
It’s tough even under rosier scenarios than the EIA’s. Assuming the world could double its projected progress in reducing the amount of carbon emitted to produce a dollar of GDP, other things being equal, countries around the globe would still emit more than 23 billion tons of CO2 in 2050 — a third less than last year but still substantially more than the target of zero.
To hit the target, all sorts of things must change much faster than they have so far. The International Energy Agency says that energy use per dollar of GDP over the next 10 years must fall over 2.5 times faster than in the last decade.
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Solar and wind energy must account for 41% of power generation in 2030, up from 11% last year. Even if every country in the world meets the decarbonisation pledges it has made so far, the IEA estimates that the global supply of renewable energy will still be some 20% short of what is needed to hit the zero-emissions target by the middle of the century.
The rising alarm over missing the targets has given renewed credence to an old, recurrent proposition: that the enemy is economic growth itself. Some activists are framing the battle against climate change as part of the effort to stop humanity’s excessive exploitation of the natural environment. To set things straight, they propose, humanity must turn the development imperative on its head and forfeit economic growth entirely.
Even this stratagem would fail to achieve the world’s climate goals. Based on the EIA projections, a world in which each country’s GDP per person was frozen in 2021 would still be spewing 24 billion tons of CO2 into the air in 2050.
What’s more, leaders of the global south will not take kindly to the proposition that they should lay the development dream to rest. Which again raises the question, what would meeting the development challenge entail? What would happen to the climate if everybody got rich?
Based on the EIA’s base scenario for population growth and technological progress toward removing carbon from the economy, achieving the long-standing development goal would raise CO2 emissions in 2050 to 79 billion tons — more than double the emissions of 2021.
This, however, is the challenge the world must set out to tackle. Not only would it be immoral to condemn the poor world to remain poor. The proposition would never fly in Lagos, New Delhi or Beijing. And any strategy to reduce climate emissions will require their wholehearted collaboration.
Would we broil? Robust economic growth in the global south would probably speed up technological progress and investment in new energy systems to decarbonise the world’s energy supply — helping contain changes in the climate. What’s more, fast economic growth would help poorer countries adapt to whatever climate change will unleash upon them.
Could the global economy wean itself of carbon? Limiting worldwide emissions to under 1 billion tons in 2050 would require releasing no more than a gram of CO2 for each dollar of GDP. That amounts to a 28th of the carbon released from making a dollar of GDP today, and one-eighth of the carbon efficiency the EIA baseline projects for 2050.
We must move eight times faster. That’s the scale of the challenge.
Eduardo Porter is a columnist covering Latin America, US economic policy and immigration. He is the author of “American Poison: How Racial Hostility Destroyed Our Promise” and “The Price of Everything: Finding Method in the Madness of What Things Cost.”