Why emerging economies must have a seat at COP28
Achieving net zero calls for transforming entire value chains, including how we produce, consume and live.
Developed economies have the luxury of investing in improving production efficiency, decarbonizing energy systems and optimizing economic structures, with some achieving peak emissions without harming their economies.
But for developing countries, the story is different.
They have limited resources or budget to deploy low-carbon technologies or still need the fossil fuel-based system to boost their economy.
Lack of capital makes it difficult for them to exploit the opportunities of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. They remain trapped in a vicious cycle in which their emissions are tied to their ability to grow.
At the upcoming UN climate change conference or COP28, branded as “the most inclusive COP ever,” the world will have an opportunity to finally bring emerging economies into the conversation.
Notably, 59 major emerging economies now dominate the rise of greenhouse gases; they were responsible for about 39 percent of the world’s emission increase between 2010 and 2018.
Without making them more sustainable or tackling their production and consumption, these countries will continue to increase carbon emissions.
At COP28, it is also critical to discuss finance and enablers to support less developed but fast-growing emerging countries.
Some of the greatest opportunities lie in upgrading critical industrial infrastructure in hard-to-abate sectors.
For example, oil refining, the world’s top emitting industry, will see a 10 percent decline in emissions from 2020 to 2030 if it can improve refinery efficiency and upgrade heavy oil processing technology.
Similarly, leveraging solutions such as thermal efficiency and carbon capture and storage, as well as supplementary cementitious materials, can help the cement industry, which is responsible for 5 to 8 percent of global annual anthropogenic carbon dioxide, to slash its emissions significantly.
Decarbonizing the cement industry alone could reduce the Global South countries’ annual emissions by 65 percent by 2050 and their cumulative emissions by 48 percent compared to 2020.
Further, my simulations on the key super-emitting sectors in Chinese cities show that up to 31 percent of the country’s emissions can be reduced if it upgrades a disproportionately small fraction of existing infrastructure with the most advanced technologies.
One interesting but alarming fact is that substantial emissions reductions in some western EU countries have only been achieved because they have outsourced emitting industries to less developed economies, including their neighbors in Eastern Europe.
This approach may pollute those countries and cause even higher global emissions.
A two-way street
While COP28 is an opportunity to boost support for developing countries, it is also a chance for developed countries to reflect on themselves.
I have mentioned the importance of addressing production methods. But equally important are human behavior changes, sociotechnical transitions and fiscal instruments such as carbon pricing, as emphasized by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report.
My ongoing research highlights the substantial unexplored potential of adopting low-carbon lifestyle changes, which could reduce global emissions by almost 20 percent.
Dietary emissions from the global food system, contributing to 30 percent of anthropogenic emissions, would decrease by 17 percent or 1.94 gigatons if the world could adopt the EAT-Lancet planetary health diet.
These are huge opportunities and particularly relevant to developed countries.
After all, while developing countries may emit hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide annually from production, their per-capita carbon footprints are minuscule compared to developed countries.
It is also worth remembering that the wealthiest 10 percent of the world’s population is responsible for nearly half of global consumption-related emissions. In comparison, the poorest 50 percent contribute only around 10 percent.
This chasmic imbalance demonstrates the need for a holistic approach at COP28.
We know developed countries will have their place at the table, as they always do, and there must be a strong focus on reducing consumption in these economies.
But what makes COP28 a potential game-changer is that emerging countries too will have their voices heard — and we must listen.