Climate Change and Developing Countries

This post continues a theme I covered in my book Power Plays. Part 1 covered the impact on oil price and supply in Petroleum Demand in Developing Countries. Here I discuss some of the climate change implications.

Climate Change Implications

Regardless of one’s beliefs on climate change, it is a fact that the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has been increasing since coal began to be burned in large quantities during the Industrial Revolution around 1750. Since then, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration has increased from about 285 ppm to the present value of about 390 ppm (See Figure 1). Based on our scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect, we would expect that the increase should cause the average surface temperature of the earth to climb, and this has the potential to cause serious environmental damage.

Figure 1. Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continue to grow steadily.

The increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide to date is primarily due to the developed regions of the world: Europe, the United States, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, etc. (See Figure 2). However, future emissions will be dictated to an increasing degree by emerging countries that are experiencing their own industrial revolutions, which are being largely driven by increased consumption of fossil fuels.

Figure 2. Per capita carbon dioxide emissions are highest in developed countries.

While most developed countries saw their carbon dioxide emissions decline between 2006 and 2010, developing countries experienced sharp increases in carbon dioxide emissions over that time frame. In 2006, China displaced the U.S. as the largest global emitter of carbon dioxide. Since then, China’s carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 28%, or 1.8 billion metric tons. (Source: 2011 BP Statistical Review of World Energy).

In addition to China, some of the countries that experienced double-digit growth in carbon dioxide emissions between 2006 and 2010 include Peru (49%), India (40%), Vietnam (37%), Singapore (36%), and Saudi Arabia (28%). The net result was that even as the U.S., Canada, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and Malaysia all saw declines in total carbon dioxide emissions over the past five years, global emissions grew by 11% over the same time frame.

An examination of the past decade shows that economic development in the Asia Pacific region is the current driver behind growing global carbon dioxide emissions. Over the past decade, carbon dioxide emissions declined slightly in North America and the EU, but grew steadily across the Asia Pacific region. Further development of the region could see it become responsible for 50% of global carbon dioxide emissions within a decade (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Asia Pacific’s carbon dioxide footprint is growing rapidly.

Not only does the Asia Pacific region emit the most carbon dioxide, it has the highest carbon dioxide emissions growth rate of any region. Other developing regions—the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central America—have much lower overall emissions than both the Asia Pacific region and more developed regions, but as Figure 4 shows, all developing regions are experiencing rapid growth in carbon dioxide emissions.

Figure 4. Carbon dioxide emissions are growing rapidly in developing regions.

This is understandable, considering that the majority of the world’s population lives in developing regions, and they seek to raise their standards of living. Developed countries have done that by burning fossil fuels, and developing countries seek the same modern conveniences—dishwashers, televisions, computers, and cars—enjoyed by the developed world and which are currently powered mostly by fossil fuels. (If you want to understand this desire that most of us in the West take for granted, see Hans Rosling’s excellent TED talk on The Magic Washing Machine).

Thus, due to growth in developing countries, global carbon dioxide emissions are likely to continue to increase in this decade just as they did in the past decade. If that trend is to be reversed, future development would need to take place without fossil fuels. This may be possible in theory, but no country has yet provided the blueprint to show that it can be done in practice.

Consider again the per capita emissions of the United States, China, and India. While the U.S. has heavily subsidized and incentivized renewable energy, per capita emissions in the U.S. are still more than 3 times those of China and over 13 times those of India. It is one thing to imagine that developing countries could rely on renewable energy to develop without increasing their use of fossil fuels, but the reality is that the developed regions have not shown that it can be done. Thus, the developed world is in the poor position of asking developing countries to do something we ourselves have not done.

The U.S. consumes 9 times as much oil per capita as China, and 24 times as much as India—thus the U.S. is an order of magnitude beyond being able to demonstrate an appealing, low-fossil-fuel lifestyle for these countries. Imagine your life with one-tenth of the oil you currently consume, and you may see why I view curbing Asia’s oil consumption as a huge challenge.


The outlook for global carbon dioxide emissions is not a good one for those of us who are concerned about such things. Because growth is currently being driven by very large numbers of people who are increasing consumption from a very low level, it is difficult to envision a pathway to development that does not involve additional fossil fuel consumption in the foreseeable future.

Developed countries might imagine that China’s demand can be arrested at under 3 barrels of oil per person per year, but we could not imagine our own lives at such a low level of consumption. Even if developed countries could cut their oil consumption by half or even two-thirds, that would still place us at around double China’s current per capita consumption. As a result I expect global carbon dioxide emissions to continue to grow for the foreseeable future despite efforts to bring them under control.