Poor countries have spent just as much as rich ones -- and in the case of China, more -- to develop low-carbon energy, according to a study coming out this week. Its conclusions could turn the conventional wisdom about the differences among nations over mitigation efforts on its head.
The report by former World Bank economist David Wheeler, who now leads the climate change division at the think tank Center for Global Development, finds that China spent 94 cents of every $10,000 of average income on clean energy between 1990 and 2008. The United States, by contrast, spent 44 cents of every $10,000.
Meanwhile, all other industrialized countries combined spent only a penny more per year than their less developed counterparts.
"We all had this idea that [climate change] was a rich country problem and that poor countries shouldn't have to do anything until they get to a certain stage of development, and that rich countries need to make it worth their while. But what I had seen suggested [was] that poor countries were already doing a lot," Wheeler said.
The data bore that out. Wheeler examined International Energy Agency data for 174 countries on investments in six low-carbon power sources (hydro, geothermal, nuclear, biomass, wind and solar) to find the incremental costs of clean power compared to a cheaper, carbon-intensive option like a conventional coal-fired power plant. He then computed the average income share in countries to compare how much people in poor countries are paying for carbon mitigation compared to those in rich nations.
"Lo and behold, you get a world in which the shares that poor countries have been devoting to low-carbon technologies over the past 18 years is really comparable to the rich countries," Wheeler said.
The study comes as countries continue to debate whether to develop a new international climate change treaty. Developing countries, which currently are not obligated to curb emissions, have long argued that they should not be required to help solve a problem caused by industrialized nations.
Many maintain that they also have "atmospheric rights" -- that is, the right to pollute -- in order to develop. Wealthy countries, meanwhile, argue that fast-growing developing countries like China and India are not doing enough to mitigate emissions. U.S. lawmakers in particular have argued that cutting carbon would put America at a competitive disadvantage to China.
Developing nations attracted to hydropower
But the fact is, countries are working steadily to develop clean energy. And, Wheeler's study argues, they've been doing so for a long time.
Since 1990, developing countries have accounted for 55 percent of the global increase in low-carbon energy generation, he found. China accounted for 15 percent of it alone.
In fact, because of the growth of hydroelectric generation in particular, developing nations like the Kyrgyz Republic, Bhutan, Mozambique, Paraguay and Zimbabwe crowd out the few top-spending developed countries like Iceland, Germany and Finland.
Tajikistan actually tops the list, spending $12.27 for the incremental costs of clean energy for every $10,000. But Wheeler noted that might be an anomaly because the country underwent a civil war. A push in hydro development in 1992-1993 might have been a restart of war-idled energy capacity rather than new development, he noted.
Iceland is the only high-income country in the top 10 list. With a gross domestic product per capita of $29,752, the country spends $11.56 per person annually -- mostly on geothermal power. But the Kyrgyz Republic, with a per capita GDP of just $1,634, has spent only slightly less -- $11.22 per person.
Wheeler said he purposely included the controversial energy sources hydro and nuclear. While environmental groups fighting for action on climate change don't like to include those options, Wheeler said he felt it was important to look simply at what sources produce low or zero emissions. At the same time, he argued, despite the safety risks and environmental hazards posed by nuclear and large hydro, respectively, the climate would be in far worse condition had countries not developed those sources.
"They're a huge part of this story," Wheeler said. "If poor countries hadn't gone down that road, our carbon emissions would be now far higher than they are, and it would be growing every day much worse than it is." He also didn't try to tease out a country's motive for developing low-carbon energy, since in virtually every case, it had little or nothing to do with climate change.
Flying under the accounting radar
Derek Scissors, a research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation, questioned whether looking at the past decades is a useful comparison, particularly for hydro development, since industrialized countries like the United States built their dams decades ago.
But he also objected to thinking about the climate debate, or the spending necessary to reduce emissions, in terms of developed versus developing countries. Rather, he said, the discussion should be among major emitters of the past, present and future.
"Why would we think that one country should spend as much on clean energy as another country? Why should a country with low emissions do as much?" he said. "It starts from a false premise that the discussion is developing versus developed, which is just another way of saying rich versus poor. But that's not how to address the problem. That just immediately starts this as a redistribution effort."
Wheeler said he also thinks the equity argument needs to be put to rest, but that countries like the United States need to realize that long-held arguments that China is not doing enough to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions don't hold water. He noted that the 94 cents per $10,000 average income that China spent compared to America's 44 cents looks like an even wider gap when the income is factored in. China's average GDP per capita for that time period was $2,860, while the United States' was $37,640.
"What I see is, I have a really rich country that seems to be spending less than 20 percent per unit of income that what China is spending. There's no possible way I can judge that as reasonable," Wheeler said.
Developing countries as whole, he said, "have been doing a lot all along. We just haven't been doing the accounting right."