Expert Speak Terra Nova
Published on Apr 29, 2022
Developing countries are lagging behind in implementing decarbonisation policies as appropriate climate finance and green technology aren’t being extended to them.
Climate narratives: Reading between the lines This article is part of the series Comprehensive Energy Monitor: India and the World

Reports of working groups I, II, and III to the sixth assessment report (AR6) of the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) that assesses the scientific basis and impact of climate change to offer solutions were widely covered by the media in the last six months. The dominant reporting flavour was that of ‘climate doom’ with a focus on climate impacts in the worst-case scenario.  The key message conveyed was that unless sweeping technological, economic, and social transformations are made immediately climate catastrophe is assured.  The coverage of the report of working group III on mitigation of climate change was slightly more optimistic as it reflected technological optimism with the message that carbon emissions can be halved by 2030. The blame was assigned to countries and their leaders who were failing to act even though technology offered solutions.

Carbon emissions

Recent studies show that developed countries have made significant gains in decarbonisation, but this information was lost in the noise of climate catastrophe. One notable observation in AR6 that failed to grab media attention is that the rate of growth of net anthropogenic GHG (greenhouse gas) between 2010 and 2019 was lower than that between 2000 and 2009.  This does not mean that total emissions are lower.  Total emissions have continued to rise during the period 2010–2019, as have cumulative net CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions since 1850. Average annual GHG emissions during 2010-2019 were higher than in any previous decade.  But a slowdown in the growth rate of emissions is progress.

One notable observation in AR6 that failed to grab media attention is that the rate of growth of net anthropogenic GHG (greenhouse gas) between 2010 and 2019 was lower than that between 2000 and 2009. 

At least 18 countries have sustained production-based GHG and consumption-based CO2 emission reductions for longer than 10 years. Reductions were linked to energy supply decarbonisation, energy efficiency gains, and energy demand reduction, which resulted from both policies and changes in economic structure. Some countries have reduced production-based GHG emissions by a third (that ignore embedded GHGs in their imports) or more since peaking, and some have achieved several years of consecutive reduction rates of around 4 percent per year comparable to global reductions in scenarios limiting warming to 2°C or lower.

The slowdown in emission rates is recorded in the studies of the global carbon project (GCP). A 2021 paper by GCP nearly halved the estimate of net emissions from land-use change over 2019 and 2020, and by an average of 25 percent over the past decade. These changes come from an update to underlying land-use datasets that lower estimates of cropland expansion, particularly in tropical regions. Emissions from land-use change in the new GCP dataset have been decreasing by around 4 percent per year over the past decade, compared to an increase of 1.8 percent per year in the prior version.

The earlier dataset showed global CO2 emissions increasing by an average of 1.4 GtCO2eq/y (giga tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year) between 2011 and 2019 prior to COVID-related emissions declines. The new revised dataset shows that global CO2 emissions were essentially flat—increasing by only 0.1GtCO2eq/y from 2011 and 2019. When 2020 and 2021 are included, the new GCP data actually shows slightly declining global emissions over the past decade, though this is because of the dramatic decline in emissions due to pandemic related lockdowns in 2020 and 2021. The new GCP dataset also puts historical (1750-2020) cumulative emissions around 19 GtCO2eq lower than in the prior 2020 version, roughly equal to half a year of current global emissions. Falling land-use emissions have counterbalanced rising fossil CO2 emissions keeping emissions flat in the last decade.  The GCP authors caution that there is no guarantee these trends will continue in the future and that uncertainties in land-use change emissions remain large.

The GCP also observes that the global slowdown in fossil CO2 emissions growth is due to the emergence of climate policy and emission declines in OECD countries (organisation for economic cooperation and development). Consumption-based emissions are also falling significantly in 15 out of the 23 OECD countries.  Lower economic growth and declines in energy use per GDP (gross domestic product) also made smaller contribution to the slowdown in CO2 emissions growth rate.  Despite the slowing growth in global fossil CO2 emissions, emissions are still growing and are far from the reductions needed to meet the ambitious climate goals.


Another key issue highlighted in AR6 reports that was not sufficiently covered in the wider media is that of inequality in responsibility for climate change, inequality in vulnerability to climate change and inequality in the ability to address climate change.  AR6 notes that since AR5, the average global per person net anthropogenic GHG emissions increased from 7.7 to 7.8 tCO2eq, ranging from 2.6 tCO2eq to 19 tCO2eq across regions. Least developed countries (LDCs) and small island developing states (SIDS) have much lower per capita emissions (1.7 tCO2eq, 4.6 tCO2eq, respectively) than the global average (6.9 tCO2eq), excluding CO2 from land use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF).  India with per person emission of about 1.8tCO2eq is in the group of LDCs though it qualifies as a developing country on the whole.

A substantial share of the population in these low emitting countries lack access to modern energy services.

As pointed out by working group III, in 2019, around 48 percent of the global population lived in countries emitting on average more than 6t CO2eq per person, excluding CO2 LULUCF. The share of the population emitting more than 6tCO2eq per person is high because China with per person CO2 emission of 7.35tCO2eq is included in this group.  35 percent live in countries emitting more than 9 tCO2eq per person. Another 41 percent live in countries emitting less than 3 tCO2eq per person. India is part of this group.  A substantial share of the population in these low emitting countries lack access to modern energy services. Globally, the 10 percent of households with the highest per capita emissions contribute 34-45 percent of global consumption-based household GHG emissions, while the middle 40 percent contribute 40-53 percent, and the bottom 50 percent contribute 13-15 percent.

Taking note of these inequalities, the report of working group III recommends market-based solutions such as carbon taxes and carbon pricing, stating that equity and distributional impacts of such instruments can be addressed using revenue from carbon taxes or emissions trading to support low-income households.  This is easier said than done. The substantial revenue that the Indian government collects by heavily taxing fossil fuels (implicit carbon tax) does not necessarily support low-income households.  The AR6 report makes circular arguments effectively stating that “attention to equity in policy design can address inequity” or that “pathways towards sustainability will address unsustainability” which probably reflects the insignificance of equity in climate narratives.  As pointed out by observers of the line-by-line approval of the SPM of working group III, reference in the original draft to ‘developed countries’ and ‘developing countries’ that lead to the issue of equity was removed on insistence of the US. Equalising unequal countries is among the worst forms of injustice in the context of climate change, but this effort has progressed relentlessly since the 21st conference of parties (COP21) in Paris in 2015.

Climate Finance

The issue of inadequate flows of climate finance was also not given the attention that it deserved by the media.  The SPM of working group II on climate change impacts and mitigation note that losses and damages are unequally distributed across systems, regions and sectors and are not comprehensively addressed by current financial, governance and institutional arrangements, particularly in vulnerable developing countries. It adds that with increasing global warming, losses and damages increase and become increasingly difficult to avoid, while strongly concentrated among the poorest vulnerable populations. It also points out that current global financial flows for adaptation, including from public and private finance sources, are insufficient for and constrain implementation of adaptation options especially in developing countries. The report notes that overwhelming majority of global tracked climate finance was targeted to mitigation while a small proportion was targeted to adaptation. The report acknowledges that adaptation finance has come predominantly from public sources.  The SPM of working group III observes that accelerated international financial cooperation is a critical enabler of low-GHG and just transitions and can address inequities in access to finance and the costs of, and vulnerability to, the impacts of climate change.  But a footnote in the same page states that model quantifications help to identify high priority areas for cost-effective investments, but do not provide any indication on who would finance the regional investments.

The SPM of working group III observes that accelerated international financial cooperation is a critical enabler of low-GHG and just transitions and can address inequities in access to finance and the costs of, and vulnerability to, the impacts of climate change. 

In the line-by-line approval process of the SPM, developed countries led by the US questioned the classification of developed and developing countries to undermine climate finance obligations to the developing countries.  The distinction between developed and developing countries is firmly embedded in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its Paris Agreement (PA). Though developed countries resisted reference of the unfulfilled US$100 billion-a-year finance goal (by 2020 which was committed by developed countries under the UNFCCC), it is mentioned in the SPM of working group III on the insistence of developing countries.


The narratives of climate doom and technological optimism facilitate the side-lining of key issues of equity and climate finance that are critical for developing countries. Climate doom that likens the problem to that of an asteroid approaching the earth provides a sense of urgency that pushes equity and finance down the list of priorities. Technological optimism facilitates framing countries as offenders who supposedly refuse to act despite the promise of technology.  As the energy crisis initiated by the invasion of Ukraine by Russia shows, the real world is far more complicated than these simplistic narratives suggest.  OECD countries that have reduced carbon emissions have stable or declining energy use implying complete industrialisation with declining or stable population growth rates. This has allowed them to implement decarbonisation policies with a surplus generated from industrialisation to replace existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Developing countries cannot bypass this path without obligatory finance flows from developed countries justified by concerns of equity.

Source: Global Carbon Project
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