Saturday, August 1, 2015

Climate change, energy and the developing world

It seems likely that climate change will hit most countries, but possibly the poorer developing countries the hardest. Adaptation to climate change may be urgent and mitigation of its causes may also be vital, but many poor developing countries don't have the financial or technical resources for either and certainty not both. They often claim that the rich countries, who have benefited in the past from burning fossil fuels, should shoulder some or even most of the cost, for example by contributing to aid programmes. Agreement in principle has been reached on establishing a $100 billion p.a Green Climate Fund by 2020, with donations from the major industrial countries: the USA recently provided $3 billion- though that may yet be blocked by a Republican backlash.

A perhaps more direct, but very aggressive, route may be adopted by those seeking compensation for victims of major climate change related events. But who to sue? One NGO report listed 90 global companies who it said produced 63% of the cumulative global emissions of industrial CO2 and methane between 1751 and 2010. They include big coal and oil companies. Some may be feeling bit nervous, although name and same list like this may be rather partisan and limited: see the Onion’s satirical take on it: we are all responsible  Litigation may have its merits, but it mostly earns lawyers fat fees; what is really needed is changed policies for the future-though fear of litigation may lead to that.   The UN Sustainable Energy for All programme may be a bit more hopeful as a direct way ahead, helping developing countries to build up renewable energy capacity :

However all this is set in the wider context of the debate about global climate and energy policy. Should developing countries be allowed to expand their emissions for a while to catch up- e.g. using a ‘contraction and convergence’ approach, with all countries aiming to get to a set carbon per capita level by a specified date. But who would police it?

The use of per capita measures, although arguably equitable in human terms, does of course favour countries like China, with large populations, but in terms of global impacts, where the emissions come from is not important, just the total amount.  And on that basis, China now leads the world, with many other newly developing countries following them with ever-increasing emissions.  China may now aim to cap it’s emission by 2030, but the level at which they will be stabilised would, on current projections, be well beyond that of any other county, a claim forcefully made (and perhaps overstated) by those who objected to the USA’s much more stringent proposed emission cuts- 26-28% by 2025..

Interestingly, some analysts in India were unhappy with the US-China deal. They felt much more was needed: 
And certainly many less developed countries will wonder why they should be expected to curb their emissions when the industrial countries are only making relatively minimal efforts.

That view does of course reflect the assumption that making the necessary change will be very expensive- and that may not be true. As the International Renewable Energy Agency and the International Energy Agency have both pointed out, renewables are getting cheap and may soon be competitive with most conventional energy sources in many locations. Some already are.

That assessment is based on simple levelised cost comparisons. If the immediate and urgent air quality related health issues and medium term but already apparent climate change impact costs are included, then many renewables already look like a better deal. Moreover, using them avoids the cost of having to import increasingly expensive fossil fuels. It's the same for energy conservation measures- they make sense now. Obviously the change over will be hard, and there will be incidental transition costs, but scenarios are emerging suggesting that, for example, India could, in theory, get up to 90% of its total primary energy from renewables by 2050, assuming major energy savings:
And this in a densely and highly populated country without a lot of room for PV or wind.

In developing regions in Africa and elsewhere, the situation is very different and the potential may be even larger. For example, the International Renewable Energy Agency says that Africa has the potential and the ability to utilise its renewable resources to fuel the majority of its future growth with renewable energy. It adds ‘doing so would be economically competitive with other solutions, would unlock economies of scale, and would offer substantial benefits in terms of equitable development, local value creation, energy security, and environmental sustainability’.

Clearly the interaction between global geopolitics and climate/energy policy is complex, as are economic development issues, but the technology is emerging to simplify the situation. What is now needed is the political will and vision to make the changes. The industrial countries are making some effort, some more so, others less, but the future may lie with what the others now choose to do. The rich world can help, with properly targeted aid programmes and technology transfer. The World Bank says it will henceforth invest heavily in renewables and clean energy and only fund coal projects in ‘circumstances of extreme need’, where no clean option was viable at a reasonable price, because climate change will undermine efforts to eliminate extreme poverty.

That is good news- we clearly need new priorities. But the changes can’t be driven just by ‘top-down’ programmes, however altruistic. It’s a big responsibility, but, especially for developing countries without easy access to fossil fuels, the opportunities for doing it right may be large.  Of course all this would be easier if were not for the gross global imbalance in power and wealth and the dominance of multi-national corporations locked onto and defending the old path. But the new path beckons and may even be part of the revolution that will change the balance of power.