Emerging economies need carbon space to achieve decent living standards and net-zero emissions

  • As many as 62 out of 121 emerging economies, that are yet to achieve decent living standards, may face challenges in meeting their emissions reduction targets.
  • Most emissions to achieve decent living standards will come from meeting mobility and electricity needs, mainly in Asia.
  • The study suggests developed countries curb their additional emissions and give the emerging economies carbon space to achieve decent living standards.

Meeting net-zero emission targets will be a challenge for emerging economies that are striving to achieve decent standards of living, says a new study that adds to the growing body of research which argues that developed countries should reduce their consumption and leave carbon space for developing countries to grow.

The study, published in Nature Communications, comes when countries are set to debate ways to enable climate action at the COP28, the 28th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), scheduled from November 30 to December 12. Several countries, including emerging economies, have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by or around mid-century in an effort to mitigate the effects of global warming and limit temperature rise to “well below 2 degrees” above pre-industrial levels.

However, in 62 out of 121 emerging economies assessed in the study, “achieving decent living standards (DLS)…may necessitate additional carbon emissions, thereby placing a heightened burden on emission reduction efforts and potentially impeding their ability to meet emission reduction targets,” says the paper, which was published in October this year.

“We are hoping that the data in this paper can be used to have a more informed discussion on when countries can achieve net zero targets,” said Priti Parikh, professor of Infrastructure Engineering and International Development at the University College of London, and a co-author of the paper.

Most emissions to achieve decent living standards will come from meeting mobility and electricity needs. Photo by Vyacheslav Argenberg/Wikimedia Commons.

At COP negotiations, developed countries have called for global emissions to peak by 2025 in order to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, in line with what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says is needed for a 50% chance of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century.

But most developing countries are yet to achieve decent living standards, which, according to the study, will generate an additional 8.6 gigatonnes of carbon emissions compared to 2019 levels.

While this is well within the remaining 500 gigatonnes of carbon emissions left to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, developing countries are left with the challenge of “ensuring that they adopt green and sustainable development pathways to improve access to basic services such as infrastructure and reduce CO2 emissions.”

“Accelerating targeted financial support for green technology transfer,” can help address inequalities in accessing the finance needed by emerging economies for climate change mitigation, the study says.

Calls for improved climate finance by developing countries are likely to ring high at the COP28 this year, where the implementation of the Paris Agreement will be debated for the first time. Developing countries have long argued that the ambition to increase climate action needs to be accompanied with adequate climate finance.

Balancing net zero with decent living standards

The paper uses a novel dataset from 245 economies, looking at bilateral trade data across 135 economic sectors and the national statistics at the country level to capture structural changes in supply chains and economic developments. The study selects 10 indicators for decent living standards to assess additional emissions required to meet them and compares that with emissions reduction targets from emerging economies. The indicators include food, clothing, housing, sanitation, health, education, water, electricity, mobility, and ICT (access to phones, TV and internet services).

Western Europe and North America have the highest living standards, with gaps in decent living standards becoming most apparent in the African continent, where 50% of the population does not meet the DLS thresholds for education, water, sanitation and clothing.

Most additional emissions to achieve decent living standards will come from meeting electricity and mobility needs, largely from Asia due to its large population and high carbon intensity. South America and Africa contribute the most carbon emissions from ICT, making up to 47.7%. “Due to their lower levels of development, Asia and Africa also contribute more to the generated emissions in the Housing indicator, with more than 53.1% and 40.5%, respectively,” says the paper.

To look at the impact of emissions reduction targets on emissions required for decent living standards, the researchers used national emission mitigation data for 121 emerging economies from the Net Zero Tracker. The study found that half of these countries – 62 – were “expected to emit more to reach decent living standards than the carbon emissions value in their emission reduction commitments.” This is assuming the countries’ production structures and emissions intensity remain unchanged from 2019.

In 2021, India pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2070. But India’s pursuit of decent living standards, “may result in an increase of carbon dioxide emissions by 315.5% (2.5 giga tonnes) compared to 2019. This is despite India’s commitment to reducing CO2 emissions by 928.3 metric tonnes,” says the study. Similarly, 30 out of 45 emerging economies in Africa, “may face a threefold increase in carbon emissions” to achieve decent living standards, “making it more challenging to achieve national carbon emission reduction policies without international assistance.”

Investing in “green transportation” and “green power” are the main pathways to reduce emissions while achieving decent living standards. Photo by WiNG/Wikimedia Commons.

Kenya, for example committed to reducing its carbon emissions by 6.4 Mt, while an emission increase of 25.9 Mt is generated to achieve the DLS, which is “128.9% of the national total production-based carbon emissions in 2019 (20.1 Mt) and is four times that of Kenya’s emission reduction commitment.”

According to the researchers, investing in “green transportation” and “green power” are the main pathways to reduce emissions while achieving decent living standards.

The remaining carbon budget

According to the IPCC, there are only around 500 gigatonnes of carbon emissions left in the global carbon budget to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. If the benchmark is shifted to 2 degrees, there are around 1150 gigatonnes of emissions left.

Since pre-industrial times till 2019, the world has emitted 2516 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. A majority of these emissions – 67 percent – has been emitted by developed countries. According to the Global Equity Monitor, this is beyond their “fair share.”

“This study provides developing countries with the evidence they need to show that consumption in developed countries exceeds decent living standards. Those additional emissions coming from their consumption can be reduced to support the needs of developing countries,” said Parikh.

The study finds that developed countries could create a surplus of 572 MT of carbon space for emerging economies to achieve decent standards of living, by cutting down on their additional emissions.

“International assistance will play a crucial role in supporting climate change mitigation and improving the well-being of emerging economies,” says the study.


Banner image: A man sits outside his home with a tarpaulin roof. Photo by Mythilinadaraj/Wikimedia Commons.

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