Countries in the developing world can make two major contributions to slowing climate change:
- They can pursue smart development, avoiding the worst mistakes of the developed world; and
- 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%)
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.
Building greenfield industrial economies, developing countries have the opportunity to cost the environment and construct with non-polluting technologies.
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.
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?)