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Press Release
New from CGD

Carbon-Intensive South Faces Climate Crisis, Even Without Greenhouse Gas from the North

December 3, 2007

WASHINGTON,D.C.(December 3,2007)-Rising carbon emissions from developing countries would threaten the world with severe climate change within a single generation, even if the rich countries were to stop their own greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow, according to new CGD research. The finding challenges the view that because rich countries produced most of the carbon dioxide (CO2) currently heating the planet, they alone can solve the problem. Based on this conventional wisdom, some poor countries have argued that they should be allowed to develop along a carbon-intensive path until they are much richer.

But the new research shows that fossil-fueled growth in emerging economies, coming on top of already high developing-country emissions from deforestation, would lead to climate crisis long before incomes reach rich-country levels. The findings have important implications for the United Nations' climate change conference in Bali this week. Representatives of the 130 nations will be working towards a new pact to cut greenhouse-gas emissions - one that goes well beyond the goals of the current Kyoto Protocol. The Protocol is based on the view that Northern countries should rapidly cut their emissions, while emissions originating in the South will continue to grow to meet social and development needs.

"But from the perspective of the South's own self-interest, focusing exclusively on the Northern sources of this problem is a dangerous distraction," says David Wheeler, the lead author of the new study, and the head of CGD's Confronting Climate Change initiative. "The question is not if the South will commit to emissions reductions - under any scenario it eventually must for its own sake. But, will it do so in time? There will be significant costs to cutting emissions. Those costs must be shared without taking away from poverty reduction." The paper is titled "Another Inconvenient Truth: A Carbon-Intensive South Faces Environmental Disaster, No Matter What the North Does."

Wheeler and his co-author, Kevin Ummel, compiled CGD's recently released Carbon Monitoring for Action (CARMA) online database, which discloses for the first time the CO2 pollution of all power plants and companies in the world. CARMA shows that the world's biggest CO2 emitting power plant (Taichung, in Taiwan) and the biggest emitting company (Huaneng Power International, in mainland China) are both in the developing world.

For their new paper, the authors calculated separate historical emissions paths for two groups of countries: today's high-income countries (the "North") and developing countries (the "South"), using newly available emissions data for 1850 to 2005. They then project these trends into the near future using scenarios from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the international scientific body that won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice president Al Gore (whose film, An Inconvenient Truth, helped to focus world attention on the threat of climate change).

According to these new projections, by 2040 cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from the South alone would drive the atmospheric concentration of CO2 past the current level of 387 ppm (parts per million) - even if the North had never existed. By 2060, emissions from the global South would push atmospheric CO2 past 450 ppm, the threshold that the IPCC associates with large, irreversible impacts. By the end of the century, the atmospheric concentration due to the South alone would be nearing 600 ppm, well past the extreme danger zone for catastrophic climate change.

Wheeler says that these figures are conservative because they do not include other potent greenhouse gases such as methane, nor do they incorporate possible carbon cycle feedback effects - such as soil venting more greenhouse gases as temperatures rise or the oceans absorbing less CO2 due to increasing acidity or changes in circulation. Many earth scientists warn that these phenomena are already occurring.

In the South, most CO2 emissions currently come from land use change, primarily deforestation, but emissions from fossil fuels are rising rapidly. In the North, fossil fuels are the primary source of emissions, while cumulative emissions from deforestation are actually starting to decline, as some farms in mountainous temperate zones, such as in the Appalachian Mountains in the United States, revert to forest, capturing carbon. (See figures below)

Other CGD-supported research has recently shown that the impact of rising temperatures on agriculture will be much more severe for developing countries, which are usually located closer to the equator, than for high-income countries with temperate climates. William Cline, a joint fellow at CGD and the Peterson Institute for International Economics, warned in a recent book that many developing countries will face steep declines in agricultural productivity by 2080 unless global greenhouse emissions are sharply curtailed. Some countries would face agricultural collapse, as higher temperatures interfere with the growth of crops.

"Our mission is to provide independent research and practical ideas for global prosperity," says CGD president Nancy Birdsall. "It's crucial that the people and leaders in developing countries as well as the rich countries have the best available information about the choices that they confront. The finding that the South is on its way to creating its own global warming crisis should not be seen as a cause for complacency in the rich countries, or as somehow absolving us from taking action," she said. "Instead, we now know that the task is even larger and more daunting than we previously believed. To avoid a shared global disaster, we in the rich countries need to cut our own emissions quickly and do much more to help developing countries shift to a low-carbon future while at the same time meeting the just aspirations of their people for a better life."

"We found that emissions from the South alone are more than enough to catalyze a climate crisis for the South," Wheeler said. "Our results reveal the dangerous fallacy in the notion that the South can utilize carbon-intensive growth to dramatically increase incomes - a kind of last-minute, fossil-fueled development push - before the onset of catastrophic climate change."

Wheeler, a development economist who spent much of his career doing research on developing country environmental issues at the World Bank, confesses in the paper to being deeply disturbed by these findings. "This conclusion is sufficiently startling that the mind gropes for an alternative to such injustice," he writes. "Why should the South have fallen into this trap, when the North has somehow managed to avoid it? On reflection, the answer is obvious. The South's population is over four times greater than the North's, so it has been trapped by the sheer scale of its emissions at a much earlier stage of development. The South finds itself weighed down by a mass of humanity, as well as the energy technologies and fuels of an earlier age."

Figure 1: Cumulative CO2 Contributions for Global "North" and "South" 1850-2005. Source: "Another Inconvenient Truth: A Carbon-Intensive South Faces Environmental Disaster, No Matter What the North Does."