CICERO - Center for International Climate Research
Energy Food and forests Climate finance Local Solutions China The Arctic ​International Climate Policy

Waiting for the green locomotives

Climate news - News and opinions about climate science

Published 02.04.2013

A group of the world’s emerging economies are refusing to act as international locomotives of green growth. Their reluctance is easy to understand.

The Climate Change Convention, which was adopted at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, differentiates between the responsibilities of rich developed countries and of developing countries for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Originally, developing countries were not asked for reduction commitments, as their emissions were far lower than those of the rich countries. Since 1992, however, the economies of a number of large developing countries have multiplied – and so have their consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. The issue of which countries need to take a share of the responsibility for cutting emissions is still causing controversy in the international negotiations.
Fossil emissions rising in emerging economies
Four major emerging economies, known as the BASIC countries – China, India, Brazil and South Africa – are working together to keep their status as developing countries and avoid binding commitments to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. 
The BASIC countries have adopted national policies to reduce the growth in their greenhouse gas emissions, but the total emissions from fossil fuels are continuing to grow in all four countries. This is bad news for other developing countries. The steady rise in the use of fossil fuels in developing countries alone will result in major climate change, regardless of how much the rich countries of the world cut their emissions. However, the BASIC countries are facing a number of energy- and development-related problems that make it difficult for them to pledge a full transition to a green path of development.
China – the biggest in most ways
Despite the fact that no country produces more renewable energy, China accounted for 80 % of the global rise in greenhouse gas emissions in 2012. China is a world leader in both wind and solar power, but also one of the largest consumers of oil and coal. The Chinese authorities need continued economic growth to maintain stability and avoid social unrest and protests against the regime. Nevertheless, the authorities are seeking to make economic growth greener in response to major local pollution problems. But coal is still the cheapest option, and China is wary of taking on international commitments it cannot meet: losing face is a serious matter in Chinese culture.
India most vulnerable
India’s population is growing rapidly, and so are its energy needs. Two thirds of the population live on less than two dollars a day, and all Indian politicians therefore put economic growth and the fight against poverty at the top of the agenda. However, the authorities are also concerned about the impacts of climate change. A large proportion of the population depends on agriculture, which is particularly vulnerable to changes in temperature and rainfall patterns. The authorities have therefore introduced a coal tax and other climate-related measures, but coal consumption will continue to rise as more poor people achieve a better standard of living and gain access to electricity and modern energy supplies.
From rainforest to oil in Brazil
For many years, the greatest climate threat in Brazil has been deforestation – logging the country’s rainforests to provide timber and clear land for farming. The Brazilian Government has taken action to deal with this problem and has reduced the deforestation rate considerably in the past ten years. It is hoped that this trend will continue. However, Brazil is now engaged in large-scale development of its offshore oil and gas resources. The country considers this sector to be very important in the further development of a stable, sustainable economy. Poverty has been reduced in Brazil in recent years, but there are still large economic disparities, and the new oil revenues are to be used to give even more people access to energy, education and employment.
South Africa has a voracious appetite for coal
South Africa accounts for 40 % of Africa’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The industrial structure developed by the apartheid regime is strongly dependent on energy from coal, and one third of all its liquid fuel is still produced from coal through a highly polluting process. This puts South African politicians in a very difficult position – it is almost impossible to cut emissions without negative impacts on the economy and employment. Nevertheless, they have set clear climate policy targets, and believe they are realistic provided that the rich countries provide economic and technological support.
Legitimate reluctance
The rich countries have indicated that they are willing to provide this support, but the BASIC countries still consider that they are not doing enough. For twenty years, the developed countries have been promising to make substantial cuts in their greenhouse gas emissions. Their failure to do so makes it very difficult for the authorities in the BASIC countries to carry out climate-related measures that will give their own peoples less freedom of action. They have a legitimate reason for asking why they should limit their growth before they have achieved the same consumption level as people in Europe and North America.
At the same time, the authorities in all the BASIC countries are genuinely concerned about the potentially serious impacts of climate change in their countries, and have introduced steps to limit the growth in emissions. But the radical changes needed to change to a green development path globally must start in the rich countries – and they must start before the BASIC countries become further locked in to development based on fossil energy. These four countries have already demonstrated that they are adaptable, and the sooner green growth appears to be a credible and viable option, the more quickly they will be able to switch to a greener track. But they do not wish to act as the locomotives of green growth.
Waiting for the green locomotives

THE PROBLEM OF COAL. Coal is the most important energy source in China, India and South Africa. But burning coal releases greenhouse gases and causes serious air pollution and major health problems. The photo shows a woman in Delhi filling her iron with hot coals. Photo: Carol Mitchell/Flickr

Waiting for the green locomotives

MORE COAL. Coal consumption in India will rise as more poor people improve their standard of living. The photo shows air pollution in Kolkata. Photo: Surat Lozowick/Flickr

Denne artikkelen ble opprinnelig publisert i Magasinet Klima nummer 1, 2013