Climate leadership in the developing world

There is a level of political dynamism at the national level that seems all but absent from global negotiations. But what is particularly interesting about this growing trend is that it appears to be strongest in the developing world.

David Held Charles Barclay Roger
14 November 2013

A wind farm outside of Beijing. Flickr/landrovermena. Some rights reserved.

Climate change is a notoriously difficult problem to solve: what Garrett Hardin once called a “tragedy of the commons”. Governments must create institutions that fairly distribute the burden of abating greenhouse gases, accurately measure compliance, and can credibly mete out punishments to those who don't pull their weight. All of these tasks involve complex trade-offs, uncertainty and hard bargaining—and must be done fast. 

The current round of climate change negotiations, which is presently taking place in Warsaw, Poland, aims at producing a treaty that involves all countries by 2015, and would take effect by 2020. The goal is to limit global temperatures to a 1.5-2 degree Celsius rise. But many doubt whether this can be accomplished in time. They worry that we will speed past a tragic, irreversible tipping point before consensus is reached.      

There are indeed good reasons to worry. However, even without a global treaty, there are small signs of hope for the Earth. One of the most promising has been the growing number of states that have taken unilateral actions to limit their carbon emissions. One recent study in the journal Climate Policy has found that, in 2012, a total of 41 states have implemented climate change legislation, up from 34 in 2007.

The effects of such laws are potentially significant. In total, this binding legislation currently covers around 44 per cent of all emissions of greenhouse gases. Around 106 countries have also developed non-binding climate change strategies, a necessary first step towards more significant actions. These currently cover around 23 per cent of all emissions.

This growing body of climate legislation and policy, covering 67 per cent of all emissions in total, suggests a level of political dynamism at the national level that seems all but absent from global negotiations. But what is particularly interesting about this growing trend is that it appears to be strongest in the developing world. 

In the past, industrialized states, especially those within the European Union, have led the global battle against climate change. Today, the frontline in that battle is shifting. According to the same Climate Policy study mentioned above, 49 per cent of all emissions from developing states were covered by climate legislation in 2012. The equivalent number for industrialized states was 39 per cent. 

Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about how ambitious these pledges are. It may be that the pledges made by poor countries are relatively less stringent than those put forward by rich countries. But this doesn’t seem to be the case. Another study by the Stockholm Environment Institute, which pooled the results of several independent evaluations (by UNEP and McKinsey & Company, for example), found that there was “broad agreement” that the targets set by developing countries would do more to limit emissions than those put forward by their wealthier counterparts. 

One might still argue that developing countries are less likely, on balance, to follow through on their promises. Despite ambitious legislation, governance capacity in the developing world is often weak, and implementation is uneven. This is certainly true. Although many developing states have beautifully written constitutions, for example, democratic practices can be hollow. Yet, there is a growing body of evidence suggesting that many developing states are indeed becoming leaders when it comes to climate policymaking.


Our own book, Climate Governance in the Developing World (co-edited with Eva-Maria Nag), shows that a number of poorer countries are taking actions that equal some of the best efforts taken by industrialized states so far. Consider China. Over the past ten years, it has developed the largest fleet of wind turbines in the world and become a global solar energy leader. It has also turned itself into a major producer of both turbines and solar panels, and, with India, has been instrumental in making them more competitive relative to fossil fuels.

This trend looks set to continue. Currently, China plans to expand its wind capacity to 300 gigawatts by 2020, an amount roughly equivalent to the world’s entire installed wind capacity at present. It aims to expand solar energy capacity to 20 gigawatts or more. At the same time, as industrialized countries such as Japan and Germany are scaling back their use of nuclear energy, China is thrusting forward with around 30 plants under construction and more in the pipeline.

However, shifting the composition of its energy supply has only been part of the Chinese equation. Faced with skyrocketing energy demand, China has tried to improve energy efficiency as well. Under the last Five-Year Plan, the country aimed to reduce the energy intensity of its economy by 20 per cent, and it actually managed to come close to achieving that goal. The Climate Policy Initiative estimates that China managed a 19 per cent improvement in energy intensity, abating nearly 1,550 megatonnes of carbon dioxide. One scheme, the Top-1000 Enterprises Energy Conservation Programme, which created incentives for businesses to increase energy efficiency, is estimated to have avoided around 400 megatonnes alone.

Building upon these accomplishments, the country has promised to reduce the “carbon intensity” of its economy by 40-45 per cent of 2005 levels by 2020. The most recent Five-Year Plan has set a mandatory target of reducing energy intensity by 16 per cent by 2015. This has been accompanied by a host of new policies and programmes at various levels of government, as well as a major expansion of the Top-1000 Enterprises programme. Seven provinces and cities are also implementing pilot carbon-trading schemes, which many expect will merge into a national programme by 2018. 

Economist Hu Angang has famously referred to these developments as a “green revolution”. But China is not the only developing country where impressive changes have taken place. Brazil has become much more ambitious on climate change in recent years. For a long time, the country led the world in terms of emissions from land use change and deforestation. Between 1988 and 2004, around 18,000 km2 of Brazilian land was deforested annually, on average, an area roughly equivalent to the size of Kuwait or Slovenia. In 2004, this produced around 1,830 megatonnes of carbon dioxide, nearly three times the annual emissions of Canada and twice the annual emissions of Germany in the same year.

Now, after new legislation, new real-time satellite monitoring capabilities, and major efforts to build domestic enforcement capacity—under the leadership of Marina Silva, Minister of the Environment from 2003-2008, and Carlos Minc, who followed Silva in that role—Brazil has started to make real headway on the issue. Enforcement operations and protected areas increased, and deforestation has steadily fallen from its peak in 2004. In 2012, deforestation was 84 per cent below 2004 levels.

The impact of this change is already palpable. A recent report from the Observatorio do Clima, a network of environmental organizations, noted that Brazil’s annual emissions are now at their lowest level in 20 years. And, in 2009, with support from Brazilian voters and businesses, these accomplishments gave lawmakers in Brazil the confidence to push through legislation that commits the country to further reductions in deforestation, as well as a longer-term target of reducing total emissions by 36-29 per cent below business-as-usual by 2020.

Other developing countries have followed suit. Mexico has signed into law a 2020 target of reducing emissions by 20 per cent from business-as-usual. It is also one of the only countries—and likely the only developing country—to have legislated a long-term target of reducing emissions by 50 per cent by 2050. Mexican lawmakers are currently debating a carbon tax as part of a set of fiscal reforms proposed by President Peña Nieto. South Korea has also committed to reduce emissions by 30 per cent from business-as-usual by 2020, and has approved a national emissions trading scheme to meet this goal that will begin operating in 2015. Perhaps most ambitiously, Costa Rica has committed to becoming the world’s first carbon neutral country.

Of course, there are well-grounded doubts about the significance of some actions. South Africa plans to lower emissions by 42 per cent below business-as-usual by 2025, and has proposed a carbon tax, but, given its new investments in coal power generation, it is unlikely to meet this goal. Indonesia has a set a climate target for 2020, but despite a billion dollar commitment from Norway to help limit deforestation and a moratorium on new concessions, the rate of deforestation remains largely unaffected. Some have also questioned whether meeting China’s carbon intensity target would represent a meaningful departure from business-as-usual, although the best attempts to estimate the impact of China’s efforts suggest that it should.

All of this raises important questions, but it does not change the fact that the locus of climate policymaking has been shifting to the developing world. This represents a major break from the past—when it was poor countries that were accused of not doing enough to limit their impact on the climate. Indeed, the shift is all the more striking given recent setbacks and foot-dragging in the industrialized world, with both Canada and Australia taking big steps backwards, ongoing troubles with the European Union's Emissions Trading System, and gridlock in Congress that limits the scope for putting a national price on carbon in the United States. 

It is particularly important, too, because many developing countries are having a much greater impact upon the climate than they did in the past. Explosive economic growth has led to major increases in the production of greenhouse gases. China is by far the world’s largest emitter of carbon, and many others are in the top 20, including Brazil, India, and Indonesia. A recent study estimates that by 2020 the developing world will be responsible for over half of cumulative greenhouse gas emissions. Hence, action by (at least) the largest developing and emerging economies is desperately needed. 

Ultimately, while developing countries are becoming bigger players in the global race to limit emissions, their actions still fall well short of what is needed to limit global temperatures to safe levels. They must scale up their efforts, fast. This is something that can only be done through a global treaty. But such a treaty will only be possible if wealthier countries resume their leadership role on the climate. We need real, sustained actions across the industrialized world if the project of checking global warming is to succeed. If not, we might just speed past that tipping point—the problem of the commons will indeed turn to tragedy.


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