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China Shows How Climate Change And Global Poverty Can Only Be Solved Together

China has achieved a feat unparalleled in modern history: In 30 years, the nation has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty; developed extensive infrastructure, commerce, and industry; and entered the ranks of middle-income countries.  China now has the second-largest economy in the world, and it is on track to surpass the United States around 2030.  Due to the recency and magnitude of China’s success, China has become the model that other nations look to when making their own development plans.

While it is entirely appropriate that leaders of developing countries seek to raise their citizens’ standard of living and develop their economies, they must avoid emulating China in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change and local pollution.  Like the West before it, China built its development on the back of dirty energy: petroleum burned by vehicles and coal burned in power plants and industrial facilities.

China may have had little choice in how to power its growth, as clean energy options – such as solar panels, wind turbines, and electric cars – were less technologically mature and considerably more expensive than they are today.  Nonetheless, China’s ferocious consumption of fossil energy has led to severe human and environmental harms.  More than 60% of the country’s groundwater is polluted with toxins, the soil is contaminated with arsenic and mercury, people in northern China die more than five years early due to air pollution, and China now contributes far more than any other nation to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to global warming.

U.S., China, India, Japan greenhouse gas emissions by country


In recent years, China has come to recognize the severity of the problems caused by fossil fuel-based development, and the government has begun taking dramatic and praiseworthy steps to curb pollution while using clean energy to power economic growth.  China has cancelled more than 100 planned and under-construction coal plants, has temporarily shut down tens of thousands of factories as part of a new effort to rigorously enforce environmental laws, and has pledged to invest nearly $400 billion in clean energy by 2020 – creating up 10 to million green jobs in the process.

Growth In Developing Nations Could Bust The World’s Carbon Budget

Unlike polluted land and water that primarily affect local residents, greenhouse gas emissions have negative impacts at global scale.  The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has found that in order to have a 66% chance of keeping the world below 2°C of warming, humanity cannot emit more than one trillion tons of carbon dioxide, in total across time – our “carbon budget.”

As of 2017, humans have already emitted 62% of that limit, and we are on track to exceed the limit in 2036.  In order to avoid 2°C of warming, global emissions must decline to near-zero by 2050 and must become negative (that is, removing more CO2 from the air than is added) in the second half of the century.

Even if global population and economic development were to remain stable, achieving these emissions cuts would require a heroic effort.  But the world is not static.  Many countries are still growing, industrializing, and urbanizing.  GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity (PPP) is a rough way to examine some of these development trends.

GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity 1990-2016


Many people are aware of China’s rise, but fewer notice that similar growth is happening across the developing world.  In 2016, India’s PPP-adjusted GDP was the same as China’s just ten years before, in 2006.  Sub-Saharan Africa, collectively, is roughly as productive as China was in 1997.  Two other huge countries, Brazil and Indonesia, are similar to China in the mid-1990s.  This growth will drive world energy demand – the International Energy Agency forecasts global energy demand will rise 30% between 2017 and 2040 (the equivalent of adding another China and India’s worth of demand), with two-thirds of that growth coming from developing countries in the Asia-Pacific region.

Many of these countries are pursuing carbon-intensive development strategies.  India has enacted policies that have worsened air pollution, at terrible cost to the health of the Indian people.  More than 100 coal plants are being constructed in Sub-Saharan Africa, and ironically, many of these are being funded and built by Chinese companies, even as China scales back its own use of coal.  (Chinese companies are behind roughly 700 coal plant projects worldwide, many outside of China, as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.)

Developing Nations Can Affordably Power Growth With Clean Energy

If the bulk of the developing world deploys coal plants, petroleum-powered vehicles, inefficient industry, and other dirty technologies, humanity will vastly exceed its trillion-ton carbon budget, causing high levels of global warming.  The resulting droughts, famine, heat stress, and sea level rise could lead to mass displacements, with numbers of refugees that dwarf those of recent conflicts, such as the Syrian civil war.  Tens of millions of refugees, and the political reaction to them, may threaten the international order.  Eventually, global warming could imperil human civilization.

Developing nations should have the full support of developed nations to build new economies and achieve prosperity for their citizens; they cannot be asked to pay the price for the past emissions of wealthy nations.  Yet, the developing world cannot burn fossil fuels in the same manner that the West and China have done- it is impossible for these countries to receive a “fair share” of the Earth’s capacity to store carbon emissions, since too little capacity remains.  Therefore, another path to prosperity must be followed.

To build their economies and improve the quality of life for their citizens, developing nations may be best served by deploying renewable energy, electric vehicles, highly efficient industry, net-zero energy buildings, and other green technologies, thereby “leapfrogging” over the dirty phase of economic development.  Only through such leapfrogging can the dual goals of conquering global poverty and protection of the human species be accomplished.  Fortunately, clean energy technologies are reaching cost parity with fossil fuels in time to meet growing demand in developing nations, and steps to improve energy efficiency are already cost-saving.

Global Poverty And Climate Change Must Be Solved Together

Developed nations, particularly the United States, should make strenuous efforts to support developing nations’ transition to sustainable prosperity, including the provision of financial assistance to enable them to deploy the necessary infrastructure in sufficient quantity.

China, the West, and other developed nations should follow the World Bank’s example by committing to fund neither coal plants nor upstream oil and gas projects anywhere in the world.  China should use its expertise at manufacturing clean technology to export renewable energy systems, electric vehicles, and efficient building components.

Policymakers around the world must recognize that the problems of global poverty and climate change are interlinked.  The only path to a prosperous and secure future involves technologies and policies that help to solve both problems at once.

By Jeffrey Rissman

Jeffrey is Head of Modeling & Energy Policy Expert at Energy Innovation and leads modeling efforts for Energy Policy Solutions.

Original Post


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Jarmo Mikkonen's picture
Jarmo Mikkonen on Jan 3, 2018

Developed nations, particularly the United States, should make strenuous efforts to support developing nations’ transition to sustainable prosperity, including the provision of financial assistance to enable them to deploy the necessary infrastructure in sufficient quantity.

A bit of cognitive dissonance here….the US, despite its wealth, has huge challenges in weaning itself off fossil fuels in the next 30 years. Same goes for Germany and Japan. China’s climate pledge is to peak their emissions around 2030. Deploying the necessary infrastructure in their own countries seems overwhelming enough.

the developing world cannot burn fossil fuels in the same manner that the West and China have done

Have done? ” Are burning” would be more accurate.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 3, 2018

Yet, the developing world cannot burn fossil fuels in the same manner that the West and China have done- it is impossible for these countries to receive a “fair share” of the Earth’s capacity to store carbon emissions, since too little capacity remains.

Jeffrey, U.S. per capita carbon emissions are currently twice those of China, and five times those of India. Any concept of a “fair share” must equalize per capita emissions – and at the current U.S. rate, by any analysis, we have a future climate disaster on our hands. Thus, it’s incumbent upon the U.S. to lower domestic per-capita emissions to a level which can accomodate other citizens of the world. Without committing ourselves to that goal, by what standard can we consider U.S. policy “sustainable”?

Similarly, your chart above might be adjusted to reflect the outsourcing of nearly all U.S. manufacturing to China over the last two decades (and adding shipping emissions to its total). Last spring, I got a great deal on lawn chairs at Wal-Mart – by your chart, I might be inclined to believe my consumption had no environmental consequences.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Jan 4, 2018

“Fortunately, clean energy technologies are reaching cost parity with fossil fuels …”

In general, no. A grid which is predominantly renewable remains significantly more expensive than one based on coal. A common mistake is to compare the levelized cost of energy from variable renewables with that from dispatchable energy sources. This ignores the fact that people only ever buy “electricity on demand”, which is provided by dispatchable sources for no extra cost, but with variable renewables, requires “firming” with (very deep) storage or dispatchable generation.

In every significant case, grids with renewable deployments (e.g. US, Germany, Japan, Spain, and even China) have used generous subsidies or price supports to make renewables viable against fossil fuels. Plus, renewable developers are not generally required to pay for installation of long distance transmission or fossil fuel backup. This backup cost is low at low renewable penetration, when the backup uses plentiful hydro or cheap frac’d fossil gas, or when provided by an already-paid-for coal plant, but it is very expensive to operate a new coal plant at low capacity factor, which is a huge problem for developing countries like India.

The cost of integrating variable renewables becomes very large when the penetration gets big. One might think Hawaii (with excellent wind, solar, & geothermal resources, and expensive electricity from oil) would be a sure bet for a predominantly renewable grid; in fact, they’ve only reached the mid 20% range, and are likely to move to imported LNG as a “bridge fuel” to help reduce coal use.

“China, the West, and other developed nations should follow the World Bank’s example by committing to fund neither coal plants nor upstream oil and gas projects anywhere in the world.”

We in rich countries should be the first to decarbonize, up to and including implementing carbon-negative technologies, and not expect developing nations to do the heavy lifting. As this Energy Collective article describes, spending extra to get cleaner energy is too harmful to the anti-poverty efforts.

I am in complete agreement with the urgency to deeply reduce our CO2 emissions. That’s why I find it so appalling the way we have prematurely closed several zero-emitting & safe US nuclear plants (e.g. Vermont Yankee, San Onofre, etc), in order to use nominally-cheaper (ignoring external cost) fossil fuel use, along with tiny amounts of renewables. After decades pursuing renewables, there are still zero major grids which have used them to achieve a low-carbon grid, while nations such as France, Sweden, and Switzerland have easily decarbonized by combining hydro and nuclear.

greggerritt greggerritt's picture
greggerritt greggerritt on Jan 4, 2018

You can not heal ecosystems without ending poverty, you can not end poverty without healing ecosystems, but you have to shut down the war machine to do anything useful.

Rudolf Huber's picture
Rudolf Huber on Jan 5, 2018

OK, China has found out that they must stop the most egregious billowing as otherwise, they won’t be around to see the 2030 milestone anymore (I overstate things on purpose here). They have started to scratch on the surface – but they still are a bigger emitter than all the rest of Asia and America combined. Let’s give them a nod but hold the applause for more serious action.

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