The belief that developing countries are forced to choose between socio-economic development and decarbonization has, finally, been proved a false dichotomy. The long-held idea that climate goals and economic self-interest are incompatible is an anachronism – as much an artifact of the past as costly solar panels.
For over five decades, international environmental meetings have been animated by a north-south divide – rich nations of the global north spearheaded pledges to rein in global emissions, while less affluent counterparts felt marginalized. Such sentiments stemmed from the idea that adherence to climate goals suppresses economic development. From the perspective of developing nations, sloganeering championed by richer countries is tainted by untenable hypocrisy.
The dilemma is encompassed in a statement by Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister in 1972, “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?” This point of contention is as alive today as it was back then – but the difference is, when Gandhi spoke, fossil fuels represented the most cost-effective path to economic development. Today, that logic no longer holds.
Why? Two simultaneous trends are at play: the decreasing price of cleaner, alternative technologies, and the swiftly rising costs associated with emissions-intensive development. Data paints a clearer picture – the price of solar modules is now less than 0.2 percent of what they cost in the 1970s. Back then, solar modules cost over $100 per watt. Today, the same amount of power is purchased for a mere 20 cents. At the same time, affluent regional blocs, like the European Union, are rolling out plans to levy a price on the carbon content of imports – a move deemed “discriminatory” by various emerging economies.
This paradigm-shift means that the success of the United Nations’ COP26 climate summit in Glasgow is judged by drastically different metrics than those used to assess the 2015 Paris Agreement. Put simply, the bar is higher in Glasgow than it was in Paris – there, success was measured in abstract ‘pledges’ and ‘accords,’ but now, pragmatic execution takes precedence.
Fortunately – and contrary to conventional belief - there are at least two good reasons to believe the Glasgow COP will not flop. First, favorable public opinion data suggests widespread societal awareness of the dangers of climate change. In the host nation, Britain, 95 percent of the public acknowledge that climate change is at least partly attributable to human activity. Politically, the country’s climate targets retain bipartisan support. More importantly and beyond survey data, climate goals and economic self-interest are more harmonious than they have ever been.
This unprecedented alignment is born out in recent research: a group of internationally-recognized experts led by Cameron Hepburn, director of Oxford University’s Smith School of Enterprise and Environment, analyzed a plethora of COVID-19 recovery policies and found that states whose policy-orientation met climate goals created more jobs and yielded a better return on investment than those that didn’t. In addition, OECD data points to the fact that a 10 percent increase in energy prices has a positive effect on productivity, no net impact on trade, and a negligible decrease in manufacturing employment by less than 1 percent.
These figures exclude less quantifiable ramifications such as the health effects of particulate emissions, along with the loss of competitiveness from cities so polluted that those who can afford to leave are rapidly doing so. India, an emerging economy, is falling victim to both these effects. The air quality index, or AQI, for New Delhi was at 451 this past week – estimates below 50 are considered safe, while anything above 300 is considered hazardous. But India’s challenge comes with an equally enticing opportunity: according to analysis in Nature, committing to generating 80 percent of power from renewables in 2040 would save $50 billion compared to a situation where green energy is absent.
Despite undergoing the region’s most ambitious socio-economic reform project, Saudi Arabia is an example of a nation acutely aware of this new climate reality. While Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest oil exporter, the Kingdom produces the world’s greenest barrel, with less methane leakage and lower life cycle emissions than any other oil-producing state. Vision 2030 explicitly emphasizes the centrality of clean energy to sustainable national development: An estimated 9.5 gigawatts of power is set to be generated wholly from renewable energy, as well as 8 percent of installed capacity, and 2 percent of total 2030 energy demand.
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest direct normal irradiation (DNI) resources in the world. Put simply, this means that very few places across the globe receive the intensity and consistency of sunlight that falls on the Kingdom. The recently launched Saudi Green Initiative sets the goal of deriving 50 percent of the country’s grid power from renewables by 2030 – an ambitious goal made possible by the Kingdom’s boundless solar potential.
Saudi Arabia has already launched a serial succession of clean energy projects to showcase its deep-seated commitment to fighting climate change. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman personally unveiled a number of those initiatives, signaling their importance and centrality to local and regional development. NEOM’s “THE LINE” – a 170-kilometer hyper connected smart-city powered by 100 percent renewable energy – as well as the Saudi-led Middle East Green initiative, are clear cases in hand. Most recently, the Kingdom has made a landmark commitment to net-zero emissions by 2060 – a significant development in line with the country’s reform-based trajectory.
While Gandhi’s world was one where developing nations risked being polluted by their poverty, the one we live in today is one in which nations face the greater risk of being impoverished by their pollution. This tectonic shift means that an emissions-intensive path isn’t the most optimal route to economic prosperity – it stymies development by burdening emerging economies with higher-cost power when cheaper alternatives are accessible.
Funding has long been a big sticking point in the global fight against climate change, and almost all of the expense for wind or solar comes at the construction stage. The onus is on rich countries to extend the crucial up-front, long-term lending to emerging markets that renewable projects demand. And although both respective parties may differ on the road to a zero-carbon future, they share an overriding interest in tackling climate change.
The truth is, emerging economies such as India – a nation yet to commit to net-zero emissions – are willing to take a green path to development, but can’t do it alone. Cash is needed to invest in renewable-friendly power grids and phase-out coal capacity.
Robust means to fuel these strategic ends are imperative. The magnitude of climate action by both rich and developing nations today should not be saddled by historic limitations, while fully embracing the scale of opportunity today – one in which climate goals and economic development are closely entwined.