Climate Change


The problem of rapid climate change is inextricably entwined with the challenges of development. Although high-income countries first created the problem through the unbridled emission of heat-trapping gases, poor people in the developing world are feeling the impacts first and worst. Moreover, some developing countries are now major emitters, and the developing world accounts for more than half of all current greenhouse gases. To be effective, responses to climate change must address developing countries’ needs, including their right to development.

The failure of UN negotiations to reach an international accord, coupled with the failure of the United States to enact climate legislation presents the world with a scary and seemingly intractable problem: there is no Plan B for heading off a climate catastrophe. CGD’s research and policy engagement on climate and development responds to this crisis in two ways: by strengthening the intellectual foundation for an eventual accord; and by offering research, data, and analysis that policymakers and others can act upon now, in the absence of an international agreement. CGD’s climate work builds on CGD’s expertise in development assistance and deep knowledge of developing countries.

CGD senior fellow David Wheeler, an internationally recognized expert on public information disclosure and environmental regulation in developing countries, leads CGD’s climate work. He has published more than a dozen CGD working papers on a wide variety of climate issues and is the architect of two emissions mapping tools, Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA), which shows the locations, ownership, and emissions of all the power plants in the world; and Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA), which uses satellite data to provide monthly updates on tropical deforestation (down to 1 sq. km. resolution).  Other CGD staff who have written on the international policy response to the climate challenge include CGD president Nancy Birdsall, senior fellow Arvind Subramanian, and research fellow Ben Leo. Additional contributors to CGD’s climate work are listed on the right.

Strengthening the Foundations for a Global Deal

In Another Inconvenient Truth: A Carbon-Intensive South Faces Environmental Disaster, No Matter What the North Does, Wheeler argues that while rich countries are responsible for most of the human-generated greenhouse gasses currently in the atmosphere, rapidly growing emissions in the developing world must also be curtailed soon to avoid climate catastrophe. High-income countries must help developing countries to achieve rapid, sustained economic growth and poverty reduction while at the same time shifting quickly to a low-carbon economy—or both parties are sunk.

Mobilizing climate finance will be an important component of a global deal.  Wheeler and CGD visiting fellow Darius Nassiry have proposed establishing two “Green Venture Funds,” which would use public climate finance to promote investment in renewable energy. Nancy Birdsall and Ben Leo propose using IMF Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) to mobilize funding for climate finance.

Previously, ahead of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Conference, CGD president Nancy Birdsall and co-author Jan von der Goltz surveyed members of the international development community with a special interest in climate change on the key elements of such a deal. Their findings, It's One Climate Policy World Out There—Almost , will be increasingly relevant as the global community attempts to find a way forward following climate summits in Copenhagen and Cancun, and in the lead up to Durban.  Also relevant to this debate: Birdsall’s paper (with Arvind Subramanian), Energy Needs and Efficiency, Not Emissions: Re-framing the Climate Change Narrative.

The work below can be seen as providing the additional building blocks and mortar necessary for an international accord. However, these proposals can also be pursued in the absence of an agreement, an unhappy prospect that in the near term seems increasingly likely.

Using Public Information and Policy to Reduce Carbon Emissions

Regulatory approaches to reducing emissions are politically difficult: they face strong opposition from fossil fuel producers and other interests that benefit in the short term from the status quo. Yet millions of concerned global citizens are ready now to help promote climate-friendly products and technologies, acting as consumers, investors, shareholders, managers, and workers. Their actions can have a meaningful impact only with access to timely, accurate information about the implications of the choices they face. CGD is creating systems such as those below to provide a wide array of stakeholders with the information they need to take action now to reduce emissions.

  • Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA): Launched in 2007, this online database presents through Google Maps and Google Earth the best available estimates of CO2 emissions for 50,000 power plants around the world and identities the 4,000 firms that own them. Power generation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, accounting for about one quarter of emissions worldwide, and is highly concentrated, making it potentially easier to address than more diffuse sources.
  • Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA): Forest Monitoring for Action (FORMA) uses freely available satellite data to generate rapidly updated online maps of tropical deforestation. Currently available for Indonesia from 2000 to the present with monthly time-lapse images since the end of 2005, these maps show where—and when—deforestation activity has occurred, providing useful information for local and national forest conservation programs and for international efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions by paying to keep forests intact.

Integrating Climate Change into Development Assistance

Two new imperatives will complicate development efforts: limiting carbon emissions and coping with rising sea levels, destructive weather events, and falling agricultural productivity. Without technical and financial assistance, most poor countries are unlikely to overcome these challenges. CGD is identifying cost-effective policies to promote low-carbon development, tracking the integration of climate change into development assistance, and comparing the performance of assistance providers. Relevant CGD publications include:

Assessing Impacts on Developing Countries

The Center’s climate work builds upon research by William Cline, a joint senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the Peterson Institute for International Economics.  Cline’s 2007 book, Global Warming and Agriculture: Impact Estimates by Country provided the first worldwide, country-level estimates of the agricultural impact of climate change through 2080.  His findings starkly reveal the stakes for developing countries: a 45 percent reduction in agricultural productivity in India and similar losses in much of sub-Saharan Africa. The implications of these findings for global stability—not to mention development—highlight the need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions while also preparing for the unavoidable effects of past emissions.

More recently, a 2011 paper by Wheeler, Quantifying Vulnerability to Climate Change: Implications for Adaptation Assistance, and an accompanying dataset estimate the vulnerability of 233 countries to three major effects of climate change (weather-related disasters, sea-level rise, and reduced agricultural productivity).  A working paper on The Economics of Adaptation to Extreme Weather Events in Developing Countries assesses the cost of climate impacts.  A 2009 working paper by Wheeler and co-authors assessed the effects of storm surges in developing countries, which are expected to increase substantially due to higher sea levels and larger storms driven by higher temperatures and increased moisture in the atmosphere.

At the same time, efforts to reduce emissions may also pose substantial risks for developing countries if they are implemented in ways that undermine economic growth. Subramanian, a joint fellow at CGD and the Peterson Institute, warns against such risks and outlines ways to avoid them in a pair of papers, Can Global De-Carbonization Inhibit Developing-Country Industrialization? and Reconciling Climate Change and Trade Policy .