In order to hold global warming to a safe temperature, global development needs to show two sustained trends. First, countries with high carbon emissions need to get them on a downward trajectory. And second, countries that are industrialising need to transition to cleaner forms of development and stop their emissions rising.
Britain is in that first category, and along with most of Europe, emissions have been falling – not fast enough, but going in the right direction. There are high income countries that aren’t doing enough, such as Japan and South Korea. Neither are Canada or Australia, so it can’t be characterised as an East vs West scenario. And since very few countries have policies that are compatible with 1.5 degrees of warming, it’s a matter of raising ambitions everywhere rather than assigning blame.
Britain’s media is inevitably focused on the Anglosphere, and that includes the environmental movement. We hear plenty about the first of those global trends and whether or not it is on track. There is very little on the second. You have to go looking for news of alternative development models, or middle income countries reaching a plateau in their emissions profiles. It’s less likely to turn up in the news anyway – it is only news if something happens. Emissions not rising isn’t news.
Since we hear less about it, commentators in the West could easily conclude that it is developing countries that need to get their act together to prevent runaway climate change. What’s the point of beating ourselves up about our emissions if other countries intend to let their emissions rise?
So here is something that I’ve not found anywhere else: a list of examples of developing or middle income countries where emissions have stopped rising. It doesn’t mean they’re doing enough or that they are on a sustainable path yet, but they are hopeful signals of that second vital trend.
Mexico – let’s start here, because in 2012 Mexico signed a commitment to a 50% cut in emissions by 2050 into law. It was the first climate law in a developing country, and three years later it introduced an energy transition law. It’s important to get these things into law so that they survive a change in government – and Mexico’s current regime is indeed less committed. Nevertheless, the country’s emissions appear to have turned a corner and a quick comparison with Brazil shows the difference.
Morrocco – the North African country is notable for being one of only two countries in the world whose current climate pledges are compatible with a 1.5 degree climate target. (The Gambia is the other one.)
Romania -It gets overlooked when its emissions are rolled in with the EU, but Romania has been quietly successful on climate change and it has halved its emissions over the last 30 years. The fall is emissions is partly due to the loss of its heavy industry in the post-USSR world, but it has also been a supporter of climate action and it was the first European country to ratify the Kyoto protocol. Again, a comparison to show that these things are not inevitable:
Mongolia – With half a billion dollars invested in renewable energy in recent years, Mongolia’s emissions have peaked and begun to decline. It’s a small country with specific circumstances, but it is a good example of how financing for climate adaptation has facilitated a measurable shift onto a cleaner development pathway.
Pakistan – one of the world’s hottest countries already, Pakistan is acutely vulnerable to climate change and this is not news to the government. Pakistan was one of the first countries to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals as national policy, and then to localise the MDGs throughout the country. It has a Ministry of Climate Change overseeing its climate action, including a major project to recover from its critically low 6% forest cover. The graph below runs to 2014 and doesn’t include the latest figures, but shows the overall leveling off of emissions, even in a context of major efforts to lift people out of poverty.
Jamaica – Through reforestation, renewable energy, fuel efficiency standards and much else besides, Jamaica’s emissions peaked in 2006 and are now declining. Jamaica is an active participant in climate coalitions of island states, and is one of 10 countries piloting sustainable shipping.
Cuba – Ten countries have so far enshrined a response to climate change in their national constitutions, and Cuba is among them. It is also a leader in climate adaptation and a leader on long term thinking: their adaptation strategy is a 100 year plan. Ecuador, which also has climate change in its constution, is yet to show an inflexion point in emissions in this comparison.
Colombia – deforestation has been a major issue in Colombia, and with parts of the Amazon under the control of rebel forces, it’s been hard to regulate it. Since the end of hostilities, the government has had more influence on illegal logging and the country put a serious dent in its emissions. As the third largest economy in South America, Colombia’s influence is not negligible – especially in encouraging its rogue neighbour to the south.
South Africa – as a major coal consumer, South Africa has not historically been a leader on climate change. Drought has exposed the country’s vulnerability and sharpened politician’s minds, and the country announced in 2019 that it would transition away from coal and towards renewable energy. After a peak in 2009, emissions are currently on a plateau and are expected to start falling between 2020 and 2025. There is no direct comparison within Africa, so I’m including another coal-powered nation with similar overall footprint – though consider that Australia has half as many people, many times the wealth and no excuses.
India? – This one comes with a question mark, but it’s too important not to mention it. This year India’s emissions fell for the first time in 40 years. The impact of the coronavirus is a big factor in that, so it would be wise not to read too much into it. However, Carbon Brief has all the details about other underlying factors that the bigger changes that are underway. Renewable energy is now cheaper than coal, and with the coal industry in crisis due to the pandemic, decarbonising India’s power sector may happen sooner than anticipated. This is a story to watch, and one with global implications.
The ten countries above aren’t an exhaustive list. I could have looked at Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, where emissions are not rising. Neither is Indonesia, though I have left it out because it has such hugely variable annual emissions depending on peat fires and deforestation. I’ve left out Costa Rica because I’ve written about them before, and Venzuela because we can’t tease apart its sustainability ambitions with recent turmoil. I could have looked at Egypt, Chile, Uruguay, Bhutan and several small states and islands where emissions are no longer rising.
The point is that emissions are not universally rising in developing or middle income countries. There is naturally a lot of focus on the big players that aren’t doing their part, and obviously things need to be moving faster. But climate change is a global story, one that is unfolding over many decades, and there are lots of underreported stories within in.
- Note: I’ve used World Bank data here so I can make visual comparisons using Google’s public data tools.