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Can developing country needs for energy be met without causing climate change?

Time (GMT +01) 11:00 12:15
Hero image description: Sad Earth Image credit:JohnLeGear Image license:Creative Commons


Professor Sir David King - Queens' College, Cambridge University

Gordon MacKerron - Sussex Energy Group, SPRU, University of Sussex


Colin Challen - Chair, All Party Parliamentary Climate Change Group

Collin Challen, introduced the event by stating how climate change themes are now becoming mainstreamed. Professor Gordon MacKerron followed with an example of how the discourse has changed from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’; this signals acknowledgement that the climate will change. Most commentators agree that a 20c increase in temperatures since pre-industrial levels is almost certain; but this level is becoming increasingly likely to be exceeded. Changes in climate are more likely to be exponential as opposed to lineal.

Developing countries have a critical interest in climate change negotiations. However, it is politically difficult for developed countries to discuss necessary adaptation measures. It is easier to control, and as a result discuss, measures to reduce carbon emissions. At the heart of current negotiations is the mitigation and energy policy debate: which countries should mitigate their emissions and how? However, the real prospect that developing countries will sign up to a global agreement to reduce their greenhouse gas (GHGs) emissions is very limited.

Low income countries are responsible for a tiny proportion of global emissions. Even if they were to continue as ‘business as usual’ their contribution to global emissions would still be negligible. There should be no limit on low income countries emissions. Although there are efforts to promote clean energy technologies in developing countries, the opportunity costs of these measures should be evaluated. Many low-income countries can ill afford the opportunity costs involved.

For middle income countries, energy efficiency is worth pursuing. But the overall effect on emissions reductions may be muted as the gains from improved efficiency may result in consequent growth in energy use and therefore emissions. Although the CDM has a contribution to make, so far its role has been limited.

China’s use of coal is equivalent to 12% of the worlds’ fossil fuel consumption. Its energy use is equivalent to one third of the worlds’ fossil fuel use. India is the worlds’ third largest coal consumer; China and India burn just over a half of all the worlds’ coal. Any deal on climate change needs to have China and India on board. But getting China on board has to be the number one priority.

In sum, the relationship between energy demands and climate change varies across country income groups. It may be misguided to promote low carbon technologies in low income countries: the actual contribution to reducing emissions may be negligible and the opportunity cost that may result could mean this is a bad idea.

The short term is for real action in emission reductions in the developed world. What happens in China and India depends to an extent on what can be delivered. Nuclear power is only a small part of the solution. China has the greatest ambitions in this area; by 2020 it plans around 30 new nuclear power plants; these will provide around 4% of its electricity needs. 

Sir David King, Chief Scientific Advisor and Director of the Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University

Sir David King, started by plugging what he felt was a gap in the current debate: half of our excess carbon emissions are absorbed by our oceans’ which release oxygen. As temperatures rise, acidification increases; this affects the stability of our food chain because it dissolves the amount of calcium and other elements in our ocean systems. If forestry reserves are the worlds’ left lung - oceans are the right [lung].

GHGs expressed as a carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) were around 270ppm during pre-industrial levels. They are now in the region of 388ppm and are increasing at a rate of 2ppm per year. Negotiations are framed around avoiding an increase in emissions that result in us exceeding 450ppm. Preventing deforestation accounts for around 19% of the problem, reducing fossil fuel consumption accounts for the rest.

Total annual global GHG emissions are in the region of 36billion tonnes – we need to reduce these to around 18billion tonnes by mid-century. That is the same as saying we need to halve our emissions by mid-century. However, business as usual trajectories posit global emissions to be in the region of 65billion tonnes by mid-century; this means we need to reduce emissions by around 80% to reach 18billion tonnes by mid-century. Framing emissions reductions in this way means that the policy objectives become much clearer and more urgent.

If we assume the global population will reach 9 billion by mid-century, this means global per capita emissions of CO2e need to be in the region of 2 tonnes per capita; a simple equitable solution is that each country adopts this target. The UK has in fact adopted this target as indicated by its commitment to 80% reduction in GHG emissions by mid-century.

It is not unreasonable to ask other countries such as China to adopt this target. Recommendations put to China have included the adoption of national cap and trade schemes. Other recommendations, more generally, include a new approach to urban planning that links transport and housing. The carbon efficiency of buildings needs to be improved; high density does not equal low quality. Every country in the world should take these recommendations on board. China will take on board the need to reduce its emissions so long as other countries do. 

Brazil emits around 12 tonnes per capita of CO2e. This figure is high because of deforestation. However, Brazil is also a world leader in GHG efficient biofuels production. It has, in partnership with the UK, transferred its [bioethanol] technology to Mozambique.  Biofuels development, where it does not compete with food production, offers developing countries opportunities to reduce their oil imports.

Rwanda is one of the most dynamic economies of sub-Saharan Africa. It has committed to expanding its GDP by 10% per annum without increasing its CO2 emissions. Because Rwanda is a landlocked country it is expensive to import coal, oil and gas. Irrigation projects now double-up as micro energy generation projects: villages that need water also need electricity.

We also need to halt consumption of products such as palm oil where this contributes to deforestation; we created the market, consumption needs to be reduced. The Brazilian government has announced measures to halt all deforestation by 2025.

The CDM is limited in its capacity to deliver:

1.       Firstly, because of the bureaucracy involved; and

2.       secondly, because of its small scale.

We need macroscopic solutions. This includes a global cap and trade scheme that can be applied at the National level.

Questions and answers

How do we incentivise developing countries to adopt clean energy projects? A lot of attention has been focusing on getting agreement in Copenhagen; the EC has announced its mantra of getting developing countries to adopt to emissions reductions targets. However, countries like India prefer bottom-up approaches as opposed to those that are top-down. Sir David King gave the example of salinity power stations in the Congo River basin; there are huge potentials for renewable energy supplies in developing countries; we should be investing. Professor Gordon MacKerron added that subsidies on coal outweigh renewable energy supplies by around 8-to-1.  

Is carbon trading enough to mitigate emissions or do we also need carbon taxes? According to Sir David King, with a carbon tax it seems that everyone loses through adopting emissions reduction targets. In comparison, carbon trading offers some countries the opportunity to gain from efforts to mitigate global GHG emissions. But carbon trading needs to send the right signals, as reflected in the price of carbon.   

What are the risks posed by reduced consumption by developed countries for developing country exporters? Sir David King stated that the transition to a low-carbon economy needs to be managed with great care. We need the right context so that we can set objectives across energy sectors. Prof Gordon MacKerron added that these aspects are very uncertain at the moment.


Recent studies suggest a large potential for clean energy projects in Sub-Saharan Africa; if fully implemented, they could provide more than twice the regions current installed power-generation capacity. It has been posited that Latin America has a comparative advantage in maximizing clean energy opportunities; energy consumption could be reduced by 10 percent over the next decade by investing in energy efficiency. This suggests that the adoption of clean energy technologies typically results in a “win:win” situation for developing countries: reducing costs and emissions.

But many developing countries have been failing to reach their full productive potential for years. Growth diagnostic studies in many developing countries regularly identify constraints such as lack of grid electricity and poor infrastructure. Typically, levels of investment in the electricity sector in developing countries are around 50 percent of needs.Credit constraints mean that the cheapest available options are often chosen as opposed to those that deliver environmental benefits. So can developing country needs for energy be met without causing climate change?  How can developing countries be incentivised to adopt cleaner energy? And what steps do developed countries need to take to facilitate this?

Committee Room 14