Surprise: Poor Countries Are Shouldering the Costs of Combating Climate Change

July 18, 2011

Progress toward an international agreement to cut CO2 emissions has been stymied by disputes about burden-sharing between rich and poor countries.  Many participants assume that poor countries will only begin to reduce emissions after an agreement is signed.  This conflict has been shaped by the view that clean energy development is an expensive game that only the rich countries have been playing.  Another view is that developing countries should only join the game if rich countries provide compensation, or when technological advances in the rich countries make clean energy competitive in cost terms.

To test the accuracy of these views, I’ve analyzed developments since 1990 in the power sector, the largest source of global greenhouse gas emissions.  My results are in a CGD paper, Fair Shares: Crediting Poor Countries for Carbon Mitigation.  The paper estimates energy growth and incremental costs for six major low-carbon technologies -- biomass, solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and nuclear -- in 174 countries from 1990 to 2008.  A nice piece in the New York Times by Lisa Friedman of Climatewire further unpacks the story behind the numbers here.My results contradict the conventional view of North-South conflict that has dominated global climate negotiations, because they show that developing countries, whether by intention or not, have been critical participants in reducing the carbon load all along.  Furthermore, they indicate that poor countries have borne their fair portion of global carbon alleviation expenditures, measured as shares of income per capita.  But they also show that expenditures for both developed and developing countries have been so modest that low-carbon energy growth could accelerate greatly.This can happen if both parties to the dispute recognize that the conflict over burden-sharing is a moot point.  Rich countries can also help do some myth busting by acknowledging that the cost of reducing the impacts of climate change has not been theirs alone, and by accepting this challenge from poor countries:We are willing to assume our fair share of the mitigation expenditure burden, as we have in the past.  If you invest more aggressively in low-carbon energy, we will match you and maintain our fair share of the global expenditure burden.  But you can scarcely expect us to pay a greater share of our incomes than you do, particularly since you have created more than your fair share of the problem.


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