What can we do in the developing world to slow climate change?

Countries in the developing world can make two major contributions to slowing climate change:

  1. They can pursue smart development, avoiding the worst mistakes of the developed world; and
  2. They can reduce – even reverse – their one major contribution to climate change: unsustainable agriculture practices.

What can the developing world do to avoid the mistakes of the developed world?

Look first at the primary sources of the GHGs that cause global warming: Power generation (25%); industry (21%); transportation (14%); and buildings (6%)

Power

Most power is generated in the developed world, much using old, dirty technology and carried long distances over inefficient power grids. Developing countries have the opportunity to build entirely new, distributed generation power systems that require no grids and use non-polluting technologies.

Industry

Building greenfield industrial economies, developing countries have the opportunity to cost the environment and construct with non-polluting technologies.

Transportation

Not yet entirely dependent upon massive road-based transportation infrastructures, developing countries have the opportunity to design efficient, low-cost, high volume transportation systems to serve cities and industrial centers, and to use policy incentives to discourage personal automobile ownership and construct high quality public transportation systems.

Building

And because so much existing building stock must be replaced in short order, developing countries have the opportunity to build efficiency into individual structures and to design urban areas for high density, high energy efficiency living.

Excellent models already exist in China, Korea and Singapore, and even the medium-term cost savings are so great that not investing to do better than the developed world today is foolish.

How can the developing world reduce its own impact on climate change?

Improve agriculture. Globally, agriculture accounts for approximately one third of total GHG and black carbon emissions; the developing world, however, produces a disproportionate amount of this total – Asia and Africa between them producing 59% of the total.

While developed country contributions have dropped as a result of reduced biomass burning and reduced agrochemical use per unit, developing country contributions have risen. (In 1990, for example, Europe’s contribution was 21% and Asia’s 38%; today, Europe contributes 12% and Asia 44%.)

Three immediate steps stand out.

First, rice production in the developing world, largely in Asia, which grows 90% of the world’s rice, needs to switch from flooded paddy propagation to SRI (system for rice intensification) techniques. This will largely eliminate the tremendous amount of methane produced by anaerobic decomposition in flooded paddies that alone contributes 10% of global GHGs annually.

Second, developing countries need to control the practice of the open field burning of agricultural wastes (rice straw, corn stalks), which annually contributes millions of tons of eCO2 and black carbon to global warming.

Third, developing countries need to develop aggressive national programs to promote the transformation of field wastes into biochar, which will sequester millions of tons of CO2 annually and eliminate both particulate and GHG emissions, while adsorbing NOx and other fertilizer derives emissions if added to soil.

What are the prospects that such policies will be adopted?

Low to middling. At issue are not scientific, technical or even cost considerations. The issues are, as everywhere, political.

The international climate change regime sits very lightly on developing countries and with few exceptions there is no domestic ground swell of support for environmental initiatives.

This allows rulers of any stripe to prioritize other, more pressing short-term concerns over abstract environmental programs with long-term pay-offs.

Where tax systems rely heavily on customs duties and/or sales taxes, for example, governments often seize the popular populist option of incentives to encourage car ownership.

Where elites are uncertain about their tenure in office, quick (and lucrative) deals with big utilities or mining companies are understandably tempting, whatever their climate change consequences. (Does this sound familiar? How long did it take Britain to close down coal mining? Why is coal mining still pushing presidential candidates around in the US? Why does even China concede ground to coal operators?)

What does the likely failure of these efforts suggest about the global effort to stop climate change?

Here it is possible to see why countries free ride in the global effort to manage climate change causing the collective action failures that have left us looking at climate disaster.

Leaders lack international incentives to act in politically costly ways and face powerful domestic incentives to do other, more politically pressing things.

But do not leap to the conclusion that developing world leaders are the problem or are in some way special.

The crisis of our times is not the result of tin pot dictators misbehaving. Don’t leave these final sections of our primer thinking that the rulers of the developing world are merely ignorant or misinformed or corrupt or the tools of malign outside actors.

Talk to them and you will find that they are generally very well informed. Talk to folks in the know and you will find that, yes, they are corrupt by your standard and, yes, outside actors ply them with all sorts of temptations.

But that said, you will also discover that their actions are seldom easily explained by the blandishments of their almost always frustrated “corrupters”.

Think about what you learn when listening in on local politics and you will discern a very familiar political logic, the stay-in-power logic.

These guys got to power by knowing how to mix-and-match, how to appease-and-pay. Every one of them has his or her ideals and everyone has his or her agenda – but everyone knows that the quickest way to kill a long-term goal is to blow a short-term necessity.

Is this really a developing world phenomena? Think of American presidents who have left a real legacy. They were not nice guys. They were connivers. They played even their closest friends and allies. They were tricky. But FDR left us Social Security. And Richard Nixon left us Medicare. And Barak Obama left us The Affordable Care Act.

And Clinton, Bush, Obama – no American president to date has signed a global climate change accord.

What does all of this suggest about your becoming a climate change maker?

Start by embracing three things: (1) no one’s opinion makes them stupid; (2) nothing about the process is or will ever be simple; and (3) everyone you confront has really good reasons for doing what they do.

If you can’t respect the opposition, deal with complexity or recognize that what you want may not be first on everyone’s wish list, get out of the business now!