“Leapfrogging”: Can developing countries truly skip over fossil fuel reliance in favor of renewable energies?

There is a popular argument that progress and growth are not possible without reliance on fossil fuel-powered energy.  Examples abide to support this claim: almost every industrialized country is (relatively and subjectively) thriving today because of their rampant abuse of coal, oil, and gas. The 1.3 billion people without electricity access are largely concentrated in developing countries, and therefore need to rely on low-cost fossil fuel energy to power their country, raise living standards, and move their economy forward. It is simply not fair to hold developing countries to the same emissions-reduction standards as developed countries like the U.S. and Europe, which already have a stable economy and the funds to invest in renewable energies. Renewable energies just don’t make sense.

Common but Differentiated Responsibility

This idea was enshrined in the “Common but Differentiated Responsibility and Respective Capabilities” (CBDR-RC) principle established at the first UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 1992, which placed the obligation to reduce current emissions on developed countries. And it has much truth to it. The effects of climate change are distributed in an incredibly inequitable fashion. The countries that have historically emitted the least bear the brunt of the impact of climate change, while the countries that have been the heaviest polluters experience very few negative effects. Energy poverty affects poor communities and poor nations far more severely, and more directly, than in developed nations. Poor rural communities are particularly vulnerable, and the poor globally spend by far the largest percentage of their income on energy, causing tremendous local hardship.

"The land can live without the man, but the man cannot live without the land." Climate Change protest in Lima, Peru for COP20. Peru is considered one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change (ADMICCO).
“The land can live without the man, but the man cannot live without the land.” Climate Change protest in Lima, Peru for COP20. Peru is considered one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change (ADMICCO). Source: Wikimedia Commons

However, this claim is fundamentally flawed when one considers the real reason behind why solar and wind are more costly than fossil fuels: investment. Historically, the fossil fuel industry has been heavily subsidized, both at the private and public (government) level. Of the more than $1600 billion invested globally in energy in 2013, $1100 billion was invested in the extraction and transport of fossil fuels, and the construction of fossil fuel-fired power plants, while just $250 billion was invested in renewables. Furthermore, the potential for job creation for renewables is huge. In 2012, the International Labour Organization estimated that about 5 million jobs had already been created in the renewable energy sector worldwide – and that is without adequate investment and government commitment to renewables. Research in Canada found that an investment of $1.3 billion (the amount the Canadian government spends on subsidies to oil and gas companies) could create 17-20,000 jobs in renewable energy, public transit, or energy efficiency – six to eight times as many jobs as that money generates in the oil and gas sector (This Changes Everything, Klein). With money out of dirty energy and into renewables, economies across the globe will see great gains in innovation, investment, and employment.

The claim is even further flawed when one actually thinks about the science behind climate change. The cost of burning fossil fuels to power our world is much more expensive than its sticker price; health problems, land damage, environmental degradation, and national security costs all factor in as unintended costs that often transcend boundaries. “Given pollution has effects across political boundaries, there is no sense is saying that developing countries need to reproduce the experience of developed countries,” said Aprajit Mahajan, Professor of Development Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. Moreover, scientists have recently identified the 2 degree Celsius carbon “budget,” a temperature rise above which could cause serious, irreversible, changes to our climate and natural landscape.

“There is the relatively accurate portrayal of the developing world that they don’t care about the environment, and can’t be made to care.  But I could see this changing very soon, given that the poor are disproportionately affected by climate change.  If the environment becomes an issue domestically, it may become an an important electoral issue,” said Professor Majahan. If we are to address these issues of climate justice, development decisions must be steered toward renewable energy technologies, and every country must work together to switch to a path of sustainable development.

Both developed and developing countries are beginning to realize the dangers of pollution and the skewed framework through which we have been viewing dirty and clean energy.  At the climate talks in Lima last year, the CBDR-RC principle was tweaked to end the differentiation between the developed and developing countries that was based on a 1990 world.  And everywhere, solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources are becoming a priority.

Renewables in Developing Countries

Developing countries have a particular strategic geographical advantage when it comes to wind and solar energy, as most are located in expansive regions with optimal access to the sun’s rays.  Sunlight is free and can be installed rapidly, an attractive option for countries without a pre-existing infrastructure to harness fossil fuels or a reliable energy grid.  On their own accord, developing countries have been working with developed countries to install solar and wind on a large scale with a rapid time-frame.

Solar Panel in Malika, Dakar. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Solar Panel in Malika, Dakar. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The results of this renewable energy boom in developing countries have been stunning. From 2009 to 2013, a study by Pew Research Center showed that developing countries added just 10 percent to their fossil energy capacity, but 91 percent to their clean energy capacity. In 2014, the multilateral coalition Climatescope assessed and analyzed climate-related investment in 55 developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean and found that developing countries are increasing their clean energy capacity twice as fast as developed nations. In the top 10 non-OECD emerging markets, solar technologies led all sectors in clean energy investment, attracting $12 billion in investments, followed by wind, which registered $7.7 billion in investment. In contrast, only 5 of the top 10 emerging markets added fossil fuel technologies, and just one built more nuclear power. Many international aid organizations and governments have started to focus on funding solar as a way to provide clean energy and lift people out of poverty, and countries like the United States have taken this opportunity to share their technology.

The academic literature on “leapfrogging” postulates that developing countries may well be able to skip the dirty phases of industrialization altogether, opting instead for modern, clean technologies. (UNDP, 1998; IPCC, 2000; World Bank, 2003). Even with these recent advances, it is difficult to conclude that this is actually happening. There is no doubt, however, that the possibility is growing. China’s “Solar Valley” is on its way to being the biggest solar energy production base in the world.  The Indian government is aiming to swap out 26 million fossil-fuel-powered groundwater pumps for solar-powered ones, and recently launched the world’s first solar-powered airport in the state of Kerala, India.  In Jamaica, solar is priced at half of what it was just 4 years ago. And in Thailand, southeast Asia’s largest solar economy, 1,500 MW are expected to be added to the solar grid of energy this year.

Renewable energy has become a global priority, and a feasible option in developed and developing countries. If we are to keep our planet from experiencing the worst of global warming, we need to come together and keep this momentum towards wind and solar going.  There needs to be investment in areas that ameliorate pollution and climate change, not contribute to it.  Already in 2011, the U.N. announced the goal of Sustainable Energy for All by 2030 to ensure universal access to modern energy services, to double the global rate of improvement in energy efficiency, and to double the share of renewable energy in the global energy mix. With the United Nations Conference on Climate Change coming up this November in Paris, a breakthrough is vital to change the investment landscape; our world leaders need to emphasize clean energy accessibility to ensure the trend towards “leapfrogging” becomes a reality.