climate change development poverty

Guest post: Leapfrogging in Ethiopia – myth or reality?

A couple of weeks ago I heard Steve Baines present some findings from his MA on low carbon development in Ethiopia. That’s a country I’ve had my eye on, and I asked Steve if he’d share his work in a guest post. It addresses one of the most pressing questions in development:

Leapfrogging – Myth or Reality? Can economic growth really be decoupled from increased carbon emissions in Least Developed Countries?

These are definitely not the research findings I expected! The data in front of me has challenged me and my long held assumptions.

ethiopia-streetClimate negotiations through the years show us one thing very clearly – that the Least Developed Countries’ (LDCs) demand the right to develop their own economies and build their own prosperity for their people. They are not prepared to accept underdevelopment under the guise of carbon responsibility.

The question is whether Least Developed Countries can deliver these improved living standards for their citizens without causing the environmental damage historically inflicted through growth in the West. Or to put it another way – can LDCs ‘leapfrog’ dirty technology and move straight to green solutions?

Does prosperity always automatically come with a carbon price tag? Evidence of any form of ‘absolute’ decoupling (where growth goes up and emissions go down) is very thin on the ground. As Tim Jackson says, “history provides little support for the plausibility of decoupling”.

Well, we now have early, tentative evidence that such ‘decoupling’ is indeed possible in practice.

This is Ethiopia’s story.

Ethiopia’s commitment

We might think we know Ethiopia, or at least the old cliches of famine, drought, civil unrest, and refugees. But think again:  in 2010 Prime Minister Meles Zenawi committed Ethiopia to two amazing joint goals:

  • To become a Middle Income nation by 2025
  • And to do this by 2030 without a single additional gram of Greenhouse Gas Emissions

These commitments were set out in Ethiopia’s Climate Resilient Green Economy (CRGE) Strategy in 2010. At the risk of understatement, the starting point is not promising. One third of Ethiopia’s people currently live on less than $1.25 a day. So to put this is promise into context, it commits Ethiopia to raising real incomes per person 3.3 times over 15 years (measured by Gross National Income per capita). Also by the end of this target period there will be over half as many people again in the country.

Surely this is madness – I thought to myself as I flew into Addis Ababa in July 2016.

The study

My study used historical World Bank statistics of Population, Gross National Income (GNI) and GHG emissions. It conceptualises these variables through the prism of IPAT – a  methodology that has achieved significant acceptance and evaluates changes in the relationships between four factors –  Impact (GHG emissions), Population, Affluence and Technology. The IPAT equation is used to calculate the degree of ‘Technological efficiency improvements’ required to meet CRGE targets. The relevant equation is:

Technology = Impact / (Population x Affluence) or T = I / (P x A)

The results

Using World Bank figures on Population growth (P) and Ethiopian commitments to Middle Income status (A) and carbon neutrality (I) it is possible to calculate that “Technology” in Ethiopia needs to become more carbon-efficient by a factor of over 4.5 times (2010- 2030) if the twin goals are to be met.

The study compared this level of Technological (leapfrogging) carbon efficiency gains to that achieved by other nations at times of strong economic growth. Using the same methodology, between 1999 and 2012 none of the 6 other countries surveyed (2 OECD countries, 2 BRICS countries and 2 other developing countries) were able to rise to this challenge.

So has Ethiopia got a track record of achievement to back up its ambitious commitments? Using the World Bank datasets I looked back at Ethiopia’s recent performance and also I talked to key players in Government and civil society.

Here are the killer figures – Between 1999 and 2012:

  • Population increased 43%
  • National affluence (GNI) rose by 242%
  • But GHG emissions actually decreased by around 15% over this time. Per capita emissions went down over 40%.

These results blew me away. They demonstrate that Ethiopia has the track record to meet their twin targets if they can just stay on the same trajectory.

ethiopia-geothermalHow has Ethiopia achieved this? The study looked in depth at the capacity of Ethiopia to benefit from climate finance and then focused in on some landmark Case Studies in the delivery of actual investment into ‘green growth’ initiatives – the rollout of a national programme of ‘Eco Industrial Parks’, securing international private investment in construction of a major geothermal plant and ongoing efforts to enhance the take-up of ‘New Improved Cook Stoves’ across the country.


So where has all of this got us? This may be actually a small, tentative, fragile message of hope… potentially a symbol. Do we believe World Bank figures? If so, then at the very early stage of development Ethiopia has achieved absolute decoupling of GHG emissions from economic growth.

Critical questions remain: fruitful areas for new research. In particular – how have the benefits of this green economic growth been distributed among the people? If growth can indeed be green and the results of growth be equitably shared to relieve poverty, then we really have a development model which is worth replicating – ‘win-win’ solutions for the planet and the people.

Perhaps it will prove harder to sustain once low hanging fruit and easy wins have been banked. Or just possibly Ethiopia has forged a new route for Sustainable Development  – a model for other LDCs to follow.

The study was undertaken in partnership with Oxfam UK, the Environment & Climate Research Centre in Addis Ababa, UNDP Ethiopia office and IDD University of Birmingham. I am indebted to them all. For more information/detail please look up Steve’s recent YouTube talk, or contact Steve by email.

Bio: Steve Baines is a 2016 IDD MSc Masters Graduate in International Development (Environment, Sustainability & Politics). He came to this after a career in UK affordable housing culminating as National Director of a FTSE250 company. His research focuses on whether economic growth can ever be truly ‘green’. Steve has deep interests in worldwide development and climate change mitigation and adaptation. On a local level, he has developed links with all major faith groups in Birmingham through ‘Footsteps – Birmingham Faiths for a Low-carbon future’ and is part of a ground breaking initiative to develop environmental religious and civic leadership in the City.

Photos by Rod Waddington and Ben Welle


  1. WOW – this is a very surprising and amazing result!
    I guess I’m still a little sceptical about the reducing carbon emissions. Do World Bank figures include embedded emissions in traded goods? What about international shipping? Or are both of those not very relevant for the global poor? I would love to read more details about this study and thanks so much for sharing.

    1. Embedded emissions in traded goods are a big problem in Britain, where consumption is so high. I would suspect that it’s a much smaller part of the equation in Ethiopia. Three quarters of the country has an income of less than $3.10 a day, so imported goods aren’t really on the shopping list.

      I’m also looking forward to reading more about this, and have asked Steve for his dissertation. If we’ve really got an example of a country forging a new development model, then I want to know as much as possible about how it’s been done.

  2. This is very interesting. But there seems to be something amiss about the ‘killer figures’ – as Tegan suspects. Yes, the World Bank figures (1999 – 2012) confirm the GNI and population figures quoted. But per capita emissions appear to have increased by 90%(0.049 tons CO2/cap in 1999 and 0.093 in 2012). I couldn’t find WB figures for overall GHG emissions. So I went to these authoritative websites ( and and they gave me (2000 – 2013) increases of 67% for per capita and 161% for overall emissions. It seems Steve Baines may have been a little premature in being blown away.

    1. The figure is for total GHG, which shows a minor decline as Steve suggested. I know that a lot of work has gone into clean cookstoves, which would reduce black carbon rather than CO2. That may explain the discrepancy between rising CO2 levels but falling total greenhouse gases.

      You’ll note that Steve says this is tentative, an area for further study, and says ‘if we believe the World Bank figures’ – so nobody needs to get carried away. And the pledge to pursue clean development comes in 2010, so with the lag in compiling statistics we don’t yet have the figures to see if it’s working. But it is a hopeful sign, and I’ll be exploring more of the detail in future posts.

      1. Well I’m glad nobody’s getting carried away. But those GHG figures do look weird: the apparent decrease is entirely caused by a massive drop between 1999 and 2001. Start your plot just two years later (2001 rather than 1999) and you get an increase of 28%. I’d be inclined to rely on the CO2 numbers (the WB uses the EDGAR data I cited) where you get a substantial increase.

        EDGAR BTW has just updated its data to 2015 and shows (1990-2015) an increase in CO2 emissions of 312%:

        1. Yes, I noticed the spike in 98/99 and wondered what that represented. Steve will know more about the difference between GHG and CO2, and what’s actually going on. I’ll see if he wants to come and comment.

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  4. Tegan, Robin and Jeremy

    Thank you for your interest. May I again apologise for the delay in responding to your excellent points and questions. I have been giving some consideration to the points raised – for which much thanks

    Sources for WB Figures

    The source of the WB figures on GHG emissions is Total Greenhouse Gas emissions (kt of CO2 equivalent).

    The sources used by WB for this dataset are stated as:

    “European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)/Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL). Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), EDGARv4.2 FT2012:

    it is therefore clear that WB data this study uses cites the very authoritative source (Edgar) which Robin refers to.

    I have interrogated EDGARv4.2 FT2012. It appears to measure worldwide GHG emissions by country using standard worldwide calculations based on technology types in that country informed by spatial mapping. There is no explicit reference I have found to reliance on national datasets collated by national Governments.No doubt, statistical experts would be better able to respond to this point.

    Prior to the study timeline the Total GHG figure from WB massively increases 1997-98 according to the dataset. This also affects some other Sub Saharan countries in the area at this same year. My academic contacts in Ethiopia are unable to explain why this may be. Clearly this is a question for the WB – one I have been unable to get to the bottom of to date.Can anyone shed light here?

    The statistics/data sources if taken at face value clearly tell us two things: Ethiopia’s GHG (CO2 equivalent) is remaining stable 1999-2012 over a period of profound economic growth (WB). However also CO2 emissions appear to be rapidly rising over a similar period (Robin’s sourced Edgar figures).


    I can only surmise what may be going on here – a case for a fuller study if ever there was one. If both datasets are reliable (to be confirmed), then CO2 is rising but GHG totals overall are stable and decoupling is happening. Might this be a case of sequestration on a massive scale? Perhaps non-CO2 based GHG emissions are declining rapidly.

    Tegan, I do not believe that embedded emissions in traded goods plays a large part for the reasons Jeremy alluded to – imports are tiny in Ethiopia in comparison with other more developed countries.Similar point for shipping.

    Overly Positive

    I am sensitive to assertions that this study paints an overly positive picture.

    This study has used an established methodology (IPAT) and datasets (WB) to identify a trend and form a conclusion. I was as surprised as anyone at where the data led! Like many I worry that research findings might be used to undermine the case for Technology Transfer and North to South financial support. These are clearly an essential part of Ethiopia’s past, present and future story.

    The study aimed to follow where the data was leading. However, I do think that there is a place for messages of encouragement/optimism where there is evidence to support them.

    Future Study

    There are clearly follow-up areas for essential understanding:

    How are the proceeds of growth being distributed among Ethiopia’s population? Is Green growth being equitably shared?

    What proportion of GNI growth may be attributed to Climate Finance and FDI in Ethiopia ?

    The decoupling trend identified through the WB stats 1999-2012? Are they continuing or simply the result of early wins?

    I would of course value your feedback and counter-argument.

    with all best wishes

    Steve Baines

    1. Most interesting Steve. I really have nothing to add, and hope you’ll be able to post a follow-up clarifying some of the issues raised.

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