How Do Developing Countries Respond to Calls to Tackle Climate Change?
For countries facing the crossroad between energy sufficiency and an ever-growing climate threat, the choice may not be so clear-cut.
Driven by the heightened levels of energy consumption and the period of relative peace following the end of the Second World War, the world has made tremendous strides in development, rendering positive results ranging from poverty alleviation to the emergence of evermore modernized technology. Lurking behind these burgeoning economies and the lavishness of the 21st century, however, is the pressing question of sustainability — how, if ever, will the world shift from its current reliance on fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. As Anne K. Armstrong, a PhD researcher at Cornell University specializing in the study of climate change and natural resources, admonished, since the eve of the industrial revolution, Earth’s “average surface temperature has risen” at ten times the rate of pre-industrial periods, demanding immediate action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Making this status quo all the more intricate is the sharp economic disparity between some of the most prosperous nations in the world and the less economically developed countries (LEDCs). According to the United Nations, LEDCs, or more commonly known as developing countries, are countries that “exhibit lower indicators of socioeconomic development and the Human Development Index (HDI).” Thrusted into a difficult situation, these economies have to tread the thin line between ensuring energy sufficiency and shouldering the responsibility to adopt renewable energy sources.
As the need to mitigate the greenhouse gas emissions from non-renewable sources looms on the global economy, many developing countries have swiftly shifted their investment focus to more environment-friendly sources of energy. A prime example of this approach would be the East African state of Ethiopia. As Emma Gordon, a researcher at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies who has written extensively on energy development in the region, observed, after a groundbreaking development plan was enacted, “Ethiopia’s power sector [became] one of the very few worldwide to have an electric grid supplied almost exclusively by renewable energy.”
This feat was primarily driven by the country’s “abundant natural resources” combined with stringent “green credentials,” as this positioned the country as ideal to renewable energy investment. Ethiopia’s approach — though compromises the continued use of the more cost-effective sources, such as coal and fossil fuels — demonstrates the government’s willingness to adopt sustainable measures and sets the country’s economy towards a more sustainable future.
The governments that are eager to transition to renewable energy, like that of Ethiopia, are oftentimes driven by the availability of new employment opportunities. Anindya Bhattacharya, a policy researcher and PhD instructor of economics at the University of York, concludes that policy-makers take this approach “to create a new employment category called ‘green collar jobs’” and stimulate the country’s employment rate. The opening up of these employment opportunities provides a strong incentive for numerous LEDC governments as high employment numbers strengthens political legitimacy and betters the well-being of their citizens. This ground for potential employment boost, in addition to the soft power gained from responding to an imminent climate crisis by adapting to renewable energy, explains why certain developing governments would go for energy policies that could compromise their sheer energy output.
On the opposing end of the spectrum, many developing countries elect to maintain their previous energy plan, largely neglecting calls from the international community to resort to less cost-efficient, renewable energy sources.
China, the economic behemoth in the developing world, is the best embodiment of this. Seeing from data on China’s energy consumption published by the government in 2020, an overwhelming majority (over 80%) of the country’s energy input is composed of highly polluting sources — such as crude oil and coal — and the trend has been consistent to the country’s energy composition in the past decades. Despite their shared LEDC status, China’s energy policy delineates a sharp contrast to the approach taken by Ethiopia, as detailed previously by Gordon. Gordon, as a proponent on Ethiopia’s policies, would likely find China’s agenda of heavily investing in non-renewable sources incredulously unsustainable. This would be echoed by Gørild Heggelund, a research professor at the Fridtjof Nansen Institute of Norway who has published numerous peer-reviewed studies on China’s climate policy over the years, who argues that, given the government’s narrative in the past, “China is unlikely to take on commitments in the near future.” China’s paramount priority, Heggelund writes, “is economic development,” and the prospect of climate change poses a hurdle for the country’s poverty alleviation efforts and their path to a prosperous economy. This, as Heggelund proceeds to explain, puts China in a “dilemma [between] an increased demand in energy and external pressures to modernize its energy production,” noting that China’s coal consumption in just 2005 alone, 2.2 billion, was an exponential surge of over 90 percent since the early 1990s. The burgeoning economics success of the country has only compounded its already skyrocketing energy demand.
Moving forward, Hegglund suggests that China’s approach, despite of their yielding phenomenal economic growth, rests extremely “vulnerable to climate change,” and proposes that a shift, even if gradual, is necessary to fend off the consequences of greenhouse gas emissions. As a response to these calls, China has, in recent years, tailored its energy policies to address the urgent need to take on more ambitious climate commitments. In a later study conducted by Heggelund and his colleagues at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), the authors spotted how, despite the country’s continued carbon emissions, China’s new climate agenda pledged to initiate a steady shift to renewable energy and aimed to “peak CO2 emissions by 2030.” The slight discrepancy in the two studies reflects the fine modifications in policies over the years, and how developing countries, in spite of their priorities, may choose to give concessions in the face of an environmental crisis. China’s struggle between energy sufficiency and the curbing of greenhouse gas emissions epitomizes the trend that, no matter how reliant countries are on fossil fuels, a gradual pivot to renewable energy remains inevitable.
For most other LEDCs, particularly those with a volatile political environment, the answer to the crossroad between renewable energy and energy productivity is less clear-cut. Unlike Gordon’s assessment of a country booming with sustainable energy or Heggelund’s focus on a prospering economy slowly pivoting to clean energy, Adam Rein, M.B.A. at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) whose research has covered various energy topics over the years, found that, for countries that are “neither endowed with large fossil fuel reserves nor inexpensive renewable energy,” balancing energy adequacy and sustainability is truly a challenging task. He looked into the Philippines as an example of this category of countries, devising a comprehensive strategy that aims to improve “economic growth, environmental impact, and energy security.” The country set an environmental target while relying a considerable share of its energy on traditional, non-renewable energy sources. As a result, Rein writes, this hybrid plan has allowed the country to begin its shift to renewable resources while not compromising its energy output. In addition, the Phillipines’ policy outlined a path to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, with renewable energy constituting nearly half of the country’s energy output. Unlike China and Ethiopia, countries such as the Philippines — the majority of LEDCs — must take a more subtle approach in regards to energy and sustainability, committing while not overdoing either.
All in all, the solution to the dilemma between energy access and climate change will only prove more tangled than the question itself — especially for developing countries. As LEDCs paddle through the treacherous waters of this issue, policymakers must assess their individual country’s need and environmental goals before concocting their own approach, and how these countries fare in the midst of ever-growing energy demand and an unprecedented climate crisis remains to be seen.
Armstrong, Anne K., Marianne E. Krasny, and Jonathon P. Schuldt. “Climate Change Science: The Facts.” In Communicating Climate Change: A Guide for Educators, 7–20. Cornell University Press, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctv941wjn.5.
Bhattacharya, Anindya. “Renewable Energy: A Strategic Policy for Sustainable Development.” Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, 2010. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep00734.
“China Statistical Yearbook” National Bureau of Statistics of China, 2020. http://www.stats.gov.cn/tjsj/ndsj/2020/indexeh.htm
Gåsemyr, Hans Jørgen, and Gørild Heggelund. “China in the Sustainable Development Agenda: Key Environmental Issues and Responses.” Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI), 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep25741.
Gordon, Emma. “Ethiopia.” The Politics of Renewable Energy in East Africa. Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, 2018. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep31066.6.
Heggelund, Gørild. “China’s Climate Change Policy: Domestic and International Developments.” Asian Perspective 31, no. 2 (2007): 155–91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42704593.
“Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs)” United Nations: Department of Economic and Social Affairs, 2021.https://www.un.org/development/desa/dpad/least-developed-country-category.html
Rein, Adam, and Karen Cruz. “Philippines Energy Policy and Development.” The Journal of Energy and Development 34, no. 1/2 (2008): 129–40. http://www.jstor.org/stable/24812697.