Infrastructure key to balancing climate and economic goals in developing countries

December 16, 2020

Washington, DC-- Developing nations have an opportunity to avoid long-term dependence on fossil fuel-burning infrastructure as they move toward economic stability, even if they are slow to cut carbon emissions, say the authors of a new paper in Environmental Research Letters.

Countries with low per capita incomes can keep their contributions to global warming to 0.3 degrees Celsius with careful foresight and planning, urge Carnegie's Lei Duan and Ken Caldeira with Juan Moreno-Cruz of the University of Waterloo. However, fueling economic development with coal, oil, or gas risks locking societies into a fossil-fuel burning infrastructure in the long-term, the authors caution.

"People in less wealthy countries are often motivated to use fossil fuels to drive their economic development and meet basic human needs," said lead author, Carnegie's Lei Duan. He continued, "While the direct climate effects from emissions from poor people will be minor, the world will care what kinds of energy systems they have as they increase their wealth."

More than half of the world's population resides in countries that have a per capita gross domestic product of less than $10,000 per year. But these nations produce less than 7 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.

So Duan, Caldeira, and Juan Moreno-Cruz of the University of Waterloo set out to determine the consequences to the climate if only richer countries focused on decarbonization and developing countries delayed emissions cuts until they achieved economic stability.

They tested several future scenarios in which carbon emissions were cut only when countries reached specified levels of economic growth.

If every country in the world started to cut emissions by 2 percent annually in 2020, the world would warm to the climate-stabilizing Paris Agreement goal of 2 degrees Celsius over the pre-industrial era. However, Duan explained, "we determined that if decarbonization began only when a country reached a $10,000 per capita GDP, it would cause less than 0.3 degrees Celsius additional warming. This demonstrates that the onus of fighting climate change really falls on the shoulders of more developed nations."

This is, in part, because developing nations tend to prioritize low-cost and easy to operate energy sources. In fact, the authors said that the biggest risk to allowing these countries to delay emissions cuts would be the possibility of their constructing more-permanent fossil-fuel-burning infrastructure that would be too costly to eliminate.

In fact, last year, a study on which Caldeira was a coauthor determined that the world's power plants, boilers, furnaces, vehicles, and other fossil fuel technology must be retired early to meet the Paris Agreement goal.

"My professional career has been focused on addressing the climate problem, but I could do that because I had access to food, and shelter, and education, and energy and a thousand other things," Caldeira said. "If I didn't have those things, I would be focused on getting those things. We in the rich world can't fault anybody for trying to meet basic needs. We need to be thinking about ways to help people meet their basic needs today, while we help them and ourselves to transition to an energy system that does not use the sky as a waste dump."
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The Carnegie Institution for Science (carnegiescience.edu) is a private, nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., with three research divisions on both coasts. Since its founding in 1902, the Carnegie Institution has been a pioneering force in basic scientific research. Carnegie scientists are leaders in plant biology, developmental biology, astronomy, materials science, global ecology, and Earth and planetary science.

Carnegie Institution for Science

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