Here’s a graph that caught my eye recently, posted on Twitter by David Roberts of Vox. It’s from a Morgan Stanley report that I don’t have access to, so apologies for not providing a linked source. It shows the 16 countries where carbon emissions have fallen fastest between 2008 and 2018, and the 16 countries where they have risen fastest.
There are a couple of really noticeable things here. One is that for the most part, the places where emissions are rising fastest are poorer countries where that is to be expected. Many of them are starting from a very low base, where the majority of people do not have access to electricity, or private cars, or wide access to consumer goods. While it would be great to see countries growing without rising emissions, it’s not a surprise to see so many low income countries appearing on the left hand side of that graph.
The second thing, on the other side, is the role of conflict in reducing emissions. There’s only tragedy behind Syria’s record fall in emissions, and nothing to celebrate in North Korea, Yemen or the Ukraine either.
At number five we find the UK, a success story. I know some readers think I complain too much about Britain’s record, but I realise that a lot of good has happened in the last decade and write about it regularly. It is worth remembering that even this rapid progress is not fast enough though, and also that much of Britain’s emissions are outsourced to other countries, but emissions are nevertheles headed in the right direction.
One other thing that strikes me is that there is an indirect and invisible connection between the worst performing countries and the best (non-conflict) performers. That’s coal. Most of Britain’s success is due to the collapse of coal, and it’s also in decline in the US and several other countries on that list. And much of the leap in emissions on the other side is also due to coal.
Take Mozambique. Only 15% of the population had access to electricity at the start of the decade shown here, and almost all of it was from hydro power. As energy access has expanded, so have emissions. Mozambique has coal, and foreign investors have an unhealthy interest in it – including new coal power plants.
The decline of coal in one place is linked to the rise elsewhere by the companies that profit from it. As coal declines in the US and parts of Europe, companies find that their profits are eroding. General Electric, for example, is a major producer of the turbines that are used in fossil fuel power stations. With business under threat in their traditional markets, they have gone looking for new ones. It’s GE that is funding and building that new coal power plant in Mozambique, hoping to lock the country’s new energy customers into coal power for another generation.
GE aren’t shy about this. “In 2011, we decided to renew our focus to meet Africa’s current and future needs” they say on their website, before boasting that they have built over a hundred power stations in Angola, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania. Have a quick look at that list, and then look back at the graph above.
To avoid dangerous climate change, emissions need to peak and fall everywhere – starting with the richest countries where fossil fuel consumption is highest. And developing countries need to leapfrog the fossil fuels of the past and build renewable energy from the start. Companies like GE, or China’s nationalised coal interests, are standing in the way of that. They won’t last. Coal is on its way out, but those profiting from it will prolong their businesses as long as they can. This is why the divestment movement matters, and why renewable energy investment in Africa is so important.