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Since the Industrial Revolution, fossil fuel technologies have been driving economic growth, so reducing emissions may appear to threaten developing countries’ progress, but to meet the Paris target, this is exactly what needs to happen. Is there a way for developing countries to prosper without increasing their emissions? 

How Do Developing Countries Contribute to Climate Change?

A study from the World Resources Institute in 2017 reveals that the world’s top three emitters of greenhouse gases, namely China, the European Union and the US, contribute more than half of the total global emissions while six of the top 10 emitters are developing countries. 

The World Economic Forum recognises that carbon emissions and developing countries being lifted out of extreme poverty are linked. An increase in carbon emissions observed over 30 years shows that poverty has been reduced within East Asia and Pacific and South Asia, while sub-Saharan Africa has, during the same time period, reduced their emissions and almost doubled the number of people living in poverty.

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Moreover, The Paris Agreement acknowledges that the efforts toward reducing carbon emissions will be common but not equal among developed and developing countries. The fairness of these contributions will be determined by national circumstances so that there will be equity in the responses and responsibilities to address climate change. This means that developing countries will be allowed to emit more carbon until they have developed enough that they no longer need to rely on carbon-intensive industries. 

However, data compiled by the World Resources Institute shows that since 2000, 21 developing countries have reduced annual emissions while simultaneously growing their economies, indicating that the decoupling of economic growth with emissions is possible.

Similarly, The Low Carbon Index found that several G20 countries have reduced their economies’ carbon intensity while maintaining GDP growth, including countries classified as ‘developing’, such as China, India, South Africa and Mexico. 

While global carbon emissions have nevertheless been rising exponentially over the past decade, the International Energy Agency reported three years of flat emissions globally, from 2014 to 2016, as the global economy grew. A study conducted in 2017 investigated whether renewable energy has anything to do with this decoupling. The findings indicated that the nations that generated more electricity from renewable resources had lower carbon emissions overall, illustrating that renewable energy is able to support economic growth while reducing emissions. 

Clean Economic Growth for Sustainable Development

According to the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century’s (REN21) yearly overview of the global state of renewable energy, it made up 24.5% of global electricity generation in 2016. This went up to 26.5% in 2017, but by the end of 2018, it had gone down to 26.2%. While the adoption of renewable energy is steadily increasing, it is not enough to have a significant impact in the long term and needs to be adopted on a much larger scale. 

According to an International Energy Agency report, Africa has the richest solar resources but has installed only 5 GW of solar photovoltaics (PV), less than 1% of global capacity. Aiming to provide electricity for everyone on the continent would require a significant increase in electricity generation, with only 43% of Africans currently having a reliable power supply. According to the report, electricity demand on the continent will more than double by 2040.

The report indicates that with the right policies, Africa can meet the demand by relying on renewable energy, with solar energy having the potential to be its top renewable energy source, exceeding hydropower. That renewable energy is now the cheapest source of energy generation makes this all the more possible. “A focus on energy efficiency can support economic growth while curbing the increase in energy demand,” the report says. 

Africa’s endeavour to meet its energy needs in a renewable way while providing its inhabitants with a good quality of life should serve as inspiration for other developing nations.

There is evidently a huge opportunity for developing countries to generate energy sustainably. Renewable energy sources deliver economic benefits without the risks of fossil fuels; such benefits include creating more job opportunities in the energy sector and achieving energy independence.

Developing Countries Cannot Afford Renewable Energy

However, there are significant barriers that prevent developing countries from adopting renewable energy plans. Decarbonisation is often not a priority for less developed countries compared to economic growth and poverty alleviation. Many of these countries struggle with gaps in technical and financial expertise, a lack of resources and poor governance. 

Creating lowest-emission or renewable energy strategies shaped to each country’s unique circumstances is vital to maintaining and encouraging growth while reducing emissions. 

Developing countries need to implement policies that shift the economy away from carbon-intensive industries. These should be coordinated at a global level to ensure a worldwide shift towards an equitable and environmentally responsible future. 

Solar and onshore wind power are now the cheapest new sources of electricity in at least two-thirds of the world’s population, further threatening the two fossil-fuel stalwarts – coal and natural gas.

The Cheapest Source of Electricity

The levelized cost of electricity for onshore wind projects has fallen 9% to $44 a megawatt-hour since the second half of last year. Solar declined 4% to $50 a megawatt-hour, according to a report Tuesday by BloombergNEF.

The prices are even lower in countries including the U.S., China and Brazil. Equipment costs have come down, technologies have improved and governments across the world have boosted clean-power targets as they seek to combat climate change. That could squeeze out coal and natural gas when utilities develop new power plants.

“Best-in-class solar and wind projects will be pushing below $20 per megawatt-hour this side of 2030,” Tifenn Brandily, an analyst at BNEF, said in a statement. “There are plenty of innovations in the pipeline that will drive down costs further.

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Yet it remains unclear whether the coronavirus’ impact on coal and gas prices will erode the competitiveness of wind and solar. “If sustained, this could help shield fossil fuel generation for a while from the cost onslaught from renewables,” Seb Henbest, chief economist at BNEF, said in the statement.

A decade ago, solar was more than $300 a megawatt-hour and onshore wind exceeded $100 per megawatt-hour. Today, onshore wind is $37 in the U.S. and $30 in Brazil, while solar is $38 in China, the cheapest sources of new electricity in those countries.

Battery storage is also getting more competitive. The levelized cost of electricity for batteries has fallen to $150 a megawatt-hour, about half of what it was two years ago. That’s made it the cheapest new peaking-power technology in places that import gas, including Europe, China and Japan.

BNEF’s levelized cost for electricity measures the entire cost of producing power, accounting for development, construction and equipment, financing, feedstock, operation and maintenance.

This story originally appeared in Bloomberg Green, written by Brian Eckhouse, and is republished here as a part of Earth.Org’s partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.


The government of South Korea is subsidising the development of biomass power so heavily that it’s hindering the adoption of renewable energy technologies like solar and wind, new research finds.

South Korea and Renewable Energy

South Korea adopted a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) policy in 2012 in order to increase the market share of renewable energy. But according to a report issued by Seoul-based NGO Solutions For Our Climate (SFOC), forest biomass is considered a carbon-neutral alternative to fossil fuels under Korean law, and the country’s government has so aggressively supported the growth of biomass-fueled energy production that it has become one of the most subsidised renewable energy sources in South Korea.

Due to the direct subsidies and other forms of financial assistance directed to biomass projects, electricity generation from biomass in South Korea rose 160 percent every year between 2012 and 2018, per the report.

Soojin Kim, a senior researcher at SFOC and an author of the report, told Mongabay that biomass projects have been so overcompensated by the government that it is causing serious disruption and uncertainties in the Korean renewable energy market, including steep declines in the price of Renewable Energy Credits (RECs). These uncertainties, in turn, are discouraging utilities from investing in renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, she said.

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“Korea has this market-based system where any utilities of more than 500MW have to supply some renewable energy in their portfolio, and biomass is one of the eligible sources of renewables they can do,” Kim said. “Once they produce renewable energy through biomass, the government issues them renewable energy certificates, and [biomass projects] were receiving about twice as much certificates because of the REC schedule that grants them higher RECs than other sources.”

Biomass projects received as much as 40 percent of total RECs on average between 2014-2018, the report states. These subsidies are meant to help offset the operating and construction costs of converting coal-fired power plants into biomass plants, but those costs are overestimated, Kim said, “in some cases 15-times higher than actual cost.” About 75% of the biomass used in Korea is burned together with coal in what’s known as a “co-firing” plant, Kim noted, and whether utilities want to turn old power plants into biomass plants or simply try to improve the environmental performance of their plants by adding some biomass to the existing coal, they can count on government support.

“It’s been a pretty profitable business for them in the biomass industry,” Kim said.

As Kim pointed out in a blog post co-authored with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Debbie Hammel, the expansion of biomass energy in Korea is not only crowding out truly green forms of renewable energy, it’s also undermining the government’s own attempts to rein in emissions in response to global climate change.

“Korean utilities have boasted about the positive climate outcomes of their coal-to-biomass conversions, some reporting up to a 90% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions,” Kim and Hammel write. “This is misleading because the emissions from burning biomass were simply omitted under the erroneous assumption of biomass ‘carbon neutrality.’ In reality, scientists have warned for years of the disastrous outcomes of burning biomass for power. Years of research has shown that even under best-case scenarios, burning biomass for electricity makes climate change worse for decades.”

Growing Biomass Industry Threatens the World’s Forests

Burning forest biomass is something of a double-jeopardy scenario for the global climate, as it both increases greenhouse gas emissions and threatens forest ecosystems around the world that are important carbon sinks.

Some 98% of the wood pellets used to produce energy in Korea are imported, mainly from Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam, the number one exporter of biomass, as well as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand. Russia and the United States are also important sources of wood pellet exports to South Korea, which has become the third-largest importer of biomass in the world.

Kim and Hammel note in their blog post that “When forests are logged, the amount of carbon stored in that forest is reduced, even under a best-case scenario in which harvested trees are immediately replanted or naturally re-grow. A recently published study showed that the same holds true even when biomass energy is generated by burning forestry residues — the leftovers from logging operations, like treetops and limbs.”

Thanks to a similar push in Japan to develop biomass-fueled electricity production capacity, East Asia has become a major driver of global biomass growth, according to Roger Smith, Japan Project Manager for the NGO Mighty Earth. “Forest biomass is a false climate solution unworthy of public subsidy. Solutions for Our Climate highlighted the major problems with wood biomass — it increases near-term greenhouse gas emissions over the coming decades, and has the potential to harm forests in exporting countries,” Smith told Mongabay.

He added: “Ironically, while Korea and Japan are turning to biomass to meet global warming and renewable energy goals, neither country has greenhouse gas standards to ensure any actual pollution reductions. This leads to an absurd situation where trees can be cut down, dried and processed into pellets, shipped across the ocean, and burned in Japanese or Korean power plants with none of the carbon pollution counted. Both nations need to close this loophole and set a stringent greenhouse gas emissions standard for all biomass fuels.”

Of course, the European Union’s renewable energy policies also recognize biomass as carbon neutral, and Europe is a major growth region for biomass energy, as well. “In fact, 65% of EU renewable energy comes from burning biomass, and so we are now seeing countries like South Korea and Japan following that same path,” NRDC’s Hammel told Mongabay.

The carbon neutrality of biomass is predicated on the idea that any trees cut down to be burned for electricity can be replanted, thus canceling out the carbon emissions of burning that biomass in power plants. But these are “erroneous” assumptions, Hammel argued, saying: “There’s no guarantee, first of all, that trees will be replanted, or that they will regrow. That’s not a safe assumption. And then, secondly, if they are replanted and allowed to regrow, it’s going to take decades. And we don’t have the time to wait.”

Forests are going to be under increasing pressure if the biomass industry keeps expanding, Hammel warned. “The EU imports for woody biomass are expected to climb to 30 million tons by 2020, and these new markets in South Korea and Japan are going to expand that demand. So I think that this is a huge threat to the world’s forests,” she told Mongabay. “It’s also a huge threat in terms of addressing climate change. Scientists have said we need to reduce our emissions over the next decade in order to avert the worst consequences of climate change and keep temperature rise to 1.5 to 2 degrees.”

But burning biomass from forests will make reaching those climate targets impossible, she said: “It’s going to worsen the effects of climate change and it’s going to degrade the world’s forests, which are some of the best tools to mitigate climate change.”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Mike Gaworecki, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

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