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Taking the Heat off the Poor
The World Bank's top climate scientist argues that fairness must be the key to global energy policy.

Photo of Robert Watson Thanks to The Day After Tomorrow , moviegoers this summer have apocalypse on their minds: disintegrating polar ice caps, freak weather events, Manhattan vanishing beneath the waves. But there's another way of thinking about global warming -- as a creeping daily threat to the poorest of the poor. Rising global temperatures mean degraded land and diminished water, an increase in water-borne diseases like cholera and vector-borne diseases such as malaria, and growing malnutrition as agricultural productivity declines throughout the tropical and subtropical world. The developing countries didn't create these problems, says Robert Watson, the World Bank's chief scientist on global warming, so it's hardly fair to demand that they fix them. -- George Black

So, who should foot the bill to stop global warming?
The cause of human-induced climate change is beyond serious dispute. It's primarily the production and use of energy in the developed world. About 80 percent of all man-made greenhouse gas emissions come from the industrialized countries. The emissions of an average American are eight times those of an average Chinese and twenty times those of an average Indian. So climate change can't be blamed on poor people. They don't use much energy.

Yet one criticism of the Kyoto Protocol is that it can't be effective without the participation of large developing countries such as China and India.
That's right, of course. Eventually we will need all developing countries to come on board. But the question is how we get there. It's a basic issue of fairness. Developing countries simply don't have the financial, institutional, or technological capability to deal with climate change today. Not only that, it's clear that poverty alleviation and economic growth in developing countries are going to require more energy use, not less. In the meantime, the industrialized countries need to take the first steps to reduce their emissions.

And those steps are?
First, improve energy efficiency and decarbonize the production of energy -- in other words, reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere per unit of energy produced. Second, eliminate perverse subsidies in the energy, transportation, and agriculture sectors that promote emissions of greenhouse gases, and work out the true cost of fossil fuels by including what economists call the "environmental externalities" -- the hidden costs of pollution. Third, send strong signals to the private sector that there are viable markets for climate-friendly technologies.

Meanwhile, some people are shocked to find out that the World Bank is supporting coal-fired power projects in China.
I don't believe it's equitable to tell India or China that they should be spending more for their energy than we do in the United States. If nongovernmental agencies or industrialized countries want to promote renewable energy technologies in developing countries, they have to make sure they're no more expensive than existing fossil-fuel technologies. If there is a cost differential, it should be borne by the industrialized countries, either through grants or through the emerging carbon market. Can I justify World Bank loans to finance a coal-fired power project in China? Absolutely. The bank shouldn't force conditions on developing countries that go beyond what the Kyoto Protocol demands of them, and if the bank is to engage them in a discussion of energy-sector reform, it's important to invest in that sector. China's going to use its coal whether we like it or not; our challenge is to help them use it in the cleanest and most sustainable way possible.

You mentioned the emerging carbon market. How would that help developing countries?
Well, it usually costs less to reduce carbon emissions in a developing country. So a government or private-sector entity in an industrialized country could pay an entity in a developing country to reduce its emissions and in turn receive an emissions reduction credit toward an obligation under the Kyoto Protocol. This might mean investing in an energy efficiency project, or a project to capture greenhouse gas emissions from a solid waste plant, or a renewable energy project rather than a cheaper fossil-fuel project. At the same time, developing countries need to know they are receiving a fair price for their carbon emissions reductions, and they need to benefit from improved technology transfers. As I said, it's all an issue of fairness.

Photo of the Statue of Liberty

Fox's summer blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow has given global warming a Hollywood makeover and caused a media tidal wave. But what's really going to happen the day after tomorrow, and the day after that? That's up to you. NRDC wants everyone to know the facts -- and to act on them. To this end, the group is working with ice cream makers Ben & Jerry's to promote public knowledge about global warming. At,
online visitors can learn about climate change and then use that information to send a letter in support of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act. From now through the end of June, Ben & Jerry's will reward each person who takes action through the website with a free scoop of ice cream.

Photos: top, Katherine Lambert; right, courtesy Twentieth Century Fox

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council