Column: CO2 emission limits and economic development



Commuters navigate early in the morning as they head into downtown Los Angeles, California, United States, July 22, 2019. REUTERS / Mike Blake

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LONDON, April 16 (Reuters) – For policymakers in North America and Western Europe, energy policy is often viewed exclusively through the lens of climate change, which takes precedence over everything else.

But for their counterparts in developing countries, where energy is still scarce and expensive and where other social problems are urgent, this is only one goal among many.

“Taking action to tackle climate change” is one of the 17 high-level sustainable development goals agreed by members of the United Nations in 2015, with a target delivery date of 2030.

Others include poverty reduction; improvements in health care and nutrition; access to clean energy, water and sanitation; create better jobs; and reduce inequalities (

For policymakers in advanced economies, tackling climate change tends to take lexical priority over all of these other goals, but their counterparts in the developing world need to take a more balanced approach.

Lexical priority is just a fancy way of saying “dictionary order”. In the dictionary, all words starting with A precede all entries starting with B.

For many Western policymakers, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions takes precedence over all other aspects of energy policy, but prioritization is more complicated for policymakers in developing economies.


The differences in energy access and consumption between advanced and developing economies remain marked (

Per capita energy consumption in OECD economies is more than three times higher than in non-OECD countries according to BP (“Statistical review of world energy”, 2019).

Per capita consumption in the European Union is a third higher than in China, five times higher than in India and almost nine times higher than in Africa.

Likewise, per capita consumption in the United States is three times that of China, 11 times that of India, and 19 times that of Africa.

Some differences can be attributed to geography; energy consumption tends to be higher in high latitude countries which require more heating. But a large part of the difference reflects differences in comfort and consumption.

Residents of advanced economies benefit from more heating, cooling and lighting services; travel further and more frequently, for pleasure as well as for work; and consume more energy integrated into goods and services.

If they are to meet the other 16 Sustainable Development Goals and increase their income and standard of living, residents of developing economies will also need to consume more energy.

In many ways, the process of economic development has always been about harnessing and using increasing amounts of energy.

The process of economic and social development in OECD economies during the 19th and 20th centuries was very energy intensive, and the same is likely to be true for non-OECD economies in the 21st century.

While energy demand has stabilized recently in advanced economies, it continues to increase rapidly in developing economies as they catch up.

Per capita energy consumption in OECD economies declined slightly by 0.2% per year between 2009 and 2019, but in non-OECD economies it grew at a compound annual rate of 1 , 8%.


The enormous scale of unmet demand for energy in developing countries poses a huge challenge for attempts to control carbon dioxide emissions.

Zero-emission energy sources need to be scaled up by orders of magnitude to replace the existing combustion of fossil fuels and meet the growth in energy demand implied by the development process.

In addition, the population of developing countries continues to grow rapidly and is expected to continue to increase over the next three decades, which will further increase energy consumption.

The population of middle-income and low-income countries has grown by 2.2 billion since 1990 and is expected to increase by another 1.9 billion by 2050 (“World Population Prospects”, United Nations, 2019).

In 2019, zero-emission energy sources covered only one sixth of global energy consumption, with the rest covered by fossil fuels, most of which would eventually need to be replaced to meet the zero target. net emission.

By 2050, global energy consumption is expected to increase an additional 25-75%, based on trends over the past decade, all of which would need to be met from zero emission sources to achieve the zero target. net.

From the perspective of advanced economics, the emissions problem is largely static, replacing existing combustion of fossil fuels with zero-emission sources.

For developing countries, it is dynamic, replacing existing fossil fuels while adding enough additional zero-emission sources to meet growing energy demand growth.


As the 26th United Nations climate conference approaches in November, key policy makers in North America and Western Europe have stressed the need for an ambitious strategy to achieve net zero by 2050.

But the rhetorical priority on reducing emissions can often sound like a call to put climate change ahead of other development goals, deferring solutions to other problems until climate change is resolved.

In reality, this seems selfish, unfair and politically impractical to many policymakers in developing countries, who must be sensitive to other goals as well.

If the conference is to succeed in setting ambitious and credible emission reduction targets, it must demonstrate how they can be integrated with other development goals.

Reducing CO2 emissions must go hand in hand with increasing energy consumption in middle- and low-income countries, stimulating their social and economic development, rather than replacing it.

Associated columns:

– Asia and the great reconvergence (Reuters, April 13) read more

– Global CO2 emissions are far from the net zero trajectory (Reuters, April 12) read more

– Access to electricity and climate change (Reuters, December 15, 2019)

Editing by David Evans

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.



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