Green development is now the only choice

Caught between pursuing growth and striving for a sustainable future, the countries of the South are questioning their growth model. But for Alessio Terzi, the elimination of polluting technologies has already begun.

Green development is now the only choice

BRUSSELS. As the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) in Sharm El Sheikh approaches, the energy crisis we are experiencing this year is intensifying the debate about measures that should be a priority for developing countries. For some, these countries should focus on development, not decarbonization; others advocate “green development”, which would mean that the countries of the South would skip the stage of using fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, rich countries, multinational institutions and major donors like China are phasing out funding for fossil fuel projects, even as they reopen their old coal-fired plants. What should developing countries think?

KenGen wind farm in the Ngong Hills, Kenya.
Photo: Nicole Sobeki/VII/REDUX-REA

The inability of rich countries to keep their promises

Seeking to take advantage of high oil and gas prices, some of them have launched tenders to drill and develop deposits in their peatlands and virgin forests. An unambiguously senior climate official for the Democratic Republic of the Congo recently stressed that his country’s priority is to accelerate growth, not “save the planet.”

This language is understandable, given the persistent failure of rich countries to deliver on their promises and financial support to countries in the South in their efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change. But the alleged contradiction between economic development and environmental policy is not convincing – or at least suffers terribly from the short term.

One study after another shows that it is in the poorest countries that the catastrophic effects of uncontrolled climate change will be felt first and most acutely. (In fact, at the time of this writing, a third of Pakistan is under water.) This means that there is no viable future scenario in which the countries of the South use fossil fuels to avoid suffering and only later invest in decarbonisation. If you follow the same path as the rich countries, it will lead to a climate catastrophe. Like everyone else, poor countries should contribute as much as possible to the global decarbonization effort, not to “save the planet” (which will do without us), but to save themselves from droughts, floods, famines and more serious shocks. .

In the Congo, technicians from oil company Perenco operate drilling equipment at one of their facilities on the outskirts of Muanda.
Photo: ALEXIS YUGE / AFP

Prisoners of obsolete technology

In addition, the idea that priority should be given to much more polluting economic growth over green investment is based on the assumption that the market for the most polluting goods is sustainable. However, if we look beyond the short term, it is already clear that the combination of changing consumption habits, carbon taxes at the borders, sustainability clauses in international trade agreements, and the many regulatory obligations and labeling standards in place in rich countries negatively affect the quality of investment in polluting goods.

In such a future, developing countries could be trapped in products and technologies that the rest of the world considers obsolete and worthless, whether they be parts for internal combustion engines, fast-consumed ready-to-wear clothing, non-food items. recyclable plastic or fossil fuels.

It is worth remembering that each of the “economic miracles” since the 1950s—be it post-war Japan, the Asian tigers, Indonesia, or China—has been supported by rapid growth in exports to wealthy, high-consumption industrialized nations. Countries dependent on polluting industries and products will not be able to take advantage of these opportunities. While sectors that we agree will experience exponential growth in the coming years are electric vehicles (EV), batteries and green hydrogen.

Green technologies will soon become cheaper

Some remain skeptical, arguing that the only rapid economic growth known to mankind in its history was caused by fossil fuels. But they are a bit like those who would have been imprisoned at the beginning of the 20th century.e century that man could never continue the path of progress without a horse and would prefer to specialize in horse-drawn transport technology. What worked in the past will not necessarily work in the future.

Finally, a story of controversy confronts less expensive, polluting options and clean technologies that only rich countries can afford. It may still be true, but the gap is rapidly closing and green technologies will soon become the cheapest.

This is already true in many parts of the world for solar and wind energy, and electric vehicles, meat alternatives, and many other products are following the same path. With significant public and private investments, such as those envisaged in the European Green Deal or the US Inflation Reduction Act, the descent initiated by green technologies along the cost curve will accelerate, lowering the costs of the energy transition. globally and make fossil fuel development relatively more expensive.

Some countries in the South are already putting its findings into practice. Ethiopia is aiming for middle-income country status by building a green economy, investing in reforestation, renewable energy and improving its transportation system. Similarly, Kenya has been a pioneer in low-carbon manufacturing.

As Ricardo Hausmann of Harvard University points out, “green development” is no longer an oxymoron. Vice versa. It became the only real solution. To achieve green growth, each country must determine, based on its comparative advantages, how it can best contribute to global green supply chains. This can be the extraction of raw materials needed for the ecological transition, the production and export of renewable electricity, or the home production of advanced environmentally friendly products.

Whatever happens, growth will be green in the coming decades. Countries that do not join the ship today risk being stranded on the docks.

Translation from English by François Boisivon

Alessio Terzi, lecturer at Sciences Po Lille, European Commission economist and book author Growth for Good: Reshaping Capitalism to Save Humanity from Climate Catastrophe (Harvard University Press, 2022).