The Biggest Part of the Climate Change Problem

As Nancy Birdsall, Dan Hammer, and Arvind Subramanian remind us in this paper posted on the VOX blog, more than one billion people on earth still live without basic electricity, and it would be completely unrealistic to expect that many, if any, of them would be content to remain in that condition over the next century. Which means that electricity use, and resultant carbon emissions, are inevitably going to rise in countries where those people live. The rich countries of the world can demand all they want that developing countries commit to binding greenhouse gas emissions reduction; it's not going to happen. That is what I call an "inconvenient truth."

It may be possible for developing countries, with the assistance of developed countries, to minimize their increases in carbon emissions from growing electricity use. But carbon emissions are going to increase from developing countries over the next 30-50 years (at least), and arguably should increase not just for purposes of their own economic development, but because economic development could well reduce their costs of adapting to higher mean temperatures. That is to say, ironic as it might sound, the best climate policy for the least developed countries is to develop more quickly, even if that means substantially increasing their carbon emissions. This implies, of course, that developed countries will have to reduce their own carbon emissions far  more than they would if emissions from the least developed countries could be expect to remain constant or fall.

So, what can be done? First of all, we have to distinguish between relatively wealthy developing countries, such as China and India, which contribute significantly to the current flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from other developing countries, which are much poorer and which contribute very little to total global emissions. But even in the case of China and India, we cannot expect them to actually reduce emissions in the near term. After all, that at least 130 million Chinese still live on $2/day or less. The most we can reasonably expect them to do is slow the rate of increase in emissions per unit of economic growth. More generally, it might also be useful, in calculating emissions and targeting reductions, to focus on emissions per capita and per unit of economic growth, rather than simply total emissions.

In the final analysis, the climate change problem is not just about reducing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. It is about doing that while maintaining adequate energy supplies for production in developed countries and increasing energy supplies in developing countries. To accomplish these multiple and seemingly inconsistent goals will ultimately require technological breakthroughs that are not certain to occur within any given time frame. But those technological changes certainly will not occur unless and until the prices of carbon-intensive energy resources, such as coal and oil, are raised and stay high.

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